Playing for one last week at Theater Row, GROUNDSWELL stars Larry Bryggman, David Lansbury (pictured left), and Cote d'Ivoirean Souleymane Sy Savane (right).
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, the play weaves the stories of Thami (Sy Savane), a housekeeper whose family lives in a tin-roofed shack and father disappeared in a diamond mine; Johan (Lansbury), formerly of the secret police, who did three years in jail for mistakenly shooting a black man who pointed his finger at him in the dark; and Mr. Smith (Bryggman), a robber baron who made his fortune investing in diamond stocks, but was later pushed out of his job by a black "affirmative action" hire."
My expectations for the play were unreasonably high given the brilliant debut work Sy Savane did in GOODBYE, SOLO, in which he plays a Senegalese cab driver in North Carolina who befriends a lonely man looking to kill himself.
A former model, Sy Savane was working as a waiter and struggling actor when he walked into casting for the movie. When he smiled, director Ramin Bahrani -- of MAN PUSH CART fame -- just turned and said, "That's Solo." I had tons of issues with the movie, namely that it started and ended nowhere, but Souleymane shone like a bright and rising star -- his honesty, familiarity with the camera, and ridiculously good looks.
GROUNDSWELL started slowly, but by the end of the play the stakes were raised so high Johan was jamming a knife in Mr. Smith's face demanding he pay "compensation" to Thami for his father's death, and the sins of all white South Africans, by investing R100K in the pair's diamond mining venture. I won't tell you how it ends, but suffice it to say the play forces us all into an uncomfortable, narrow space that we can't avoid.
The writing, by award-winning playwright Ian Bruce, is astounding. Lansbury was possibly one of the best actors I've ever seen, wielding a dagger just as deftly as he stalked about the stage spouting brandy-tinged apologies for the white race. Bryggman was amazing, though his I-don't-owe-blacks-anything speech spurred a "Bravo" from an Afrikaner in the audience.
Souleymane threw me at first -- his Xhosa a valiant effort, but the S. African accent nonexistent -- but I was able to suspend my disbelief and get lost in the story. I have mixed feelings about his performance, but I still see a bright future for him and, naively so, a unified South Africa.
Iquo B. Essien is a Naija writer/filmmaker based in Brooklyn. To learn more, visit Alligator Legs