The fire is burning/ It lights up the sky/ From high on the rock/ Down into the sea/ It is taking the children/ It is eating the future/ Smother the fire/ Open your hearts. — The Song of Jacob Zulu
The fire that rages through Tug Yourgrau’s powerful new play with music, unveiled this spring at Chicago’s Stephenwolf Theatre, is hate — hate bred of relentless racial and class oppression. In The Song of Jacob Zulu, set in the playwright’s native South Africa in 1985, the oppression is specifically named apartheid; but the drama proved eerily reflective of events that exploded in America in mid-May, during the final weeks of its world-premiere run.
Unexpectedly, so did a concurrent Chicago production mounted in collaboration with South African artists: a revamped version of Trevor Griffiths’s Comedians presented at the Court Theatre under the direction of Barney Simon, artistic director of Johannesburg’s progressive, multiracial Market Theatre. Both shows were developed in long-term workshops to allow for maximum cross-cultural rubbing, and both proved remarkably prescient in their common theme: the ever-mounting threat that cataclysmic violence will engulf society if the longstanding economic and legal oppression of blacks is not halted. For audiences visiting either play after the fiery, bloody riots swept Los Angeles, the parallels were inescapable and instructive.
Jacob Zulu tells the story of a black teenager accused of planting a bomb in a shopping mall, and its images of the protagonist being beaten and kicked by ruthless cops seemed almost nauseatingly familiar in the wake of the Rodney King trial whose verdict spawned the L.A. riots; so did the question posed by one of the play’s frequent passage of choral commentary: “Can there be justice for a black man in a white man’s court?” Equally disturbing was the nature of the crime of which Jacob is accused: setting off an explosion not against a military target but in a civilian location, where it kills and maims black and white citizens alike.
The play isn’t about the framing of an innocent man–Jacob is guilty of the bombing, and though he claims in court that he attempted to telephone a warning to clear the shopping center, he admits in secret (only to the audience) that his intention wasn’t political but purely personal: He hated, and so he wanted to kill as many white people as possible. That grief-stricken statement climaxes the long confessional flashback the constitutes most of Yourgrau’s script, which was inspired by the case of one Andrew Zondo, who was executed for a similar crime.
The playwright, a white man whose family emigrated from Johannesburg to the U.S. in 1959 when he was 11, came across the Zondo case when he was back in South Africa researching a documentary for PBS-TV’s Frontlines. He conceived the project for television but ended up submitting it to Steppenwolf’s New Plays Project competition, though he’d never written a stage play before. If it starts out as fairly conventional courtroom drama, the play builds suspense through Jacob’s reluctance to speak in his own defense, and gains its footing in the long, linear recap of Jacob’s life that dramatizes how a sweet-natured minister’s son was twisted into a killer.
Drawing upon both Greek tragedy and the Christian passion play (Jacob is described early on as one “who suffered for the sins of South Africa”), Yourgrau and director Eric Simonson used the a cappella singing and stylized movement of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the ensemble best known in America for its work with pop singer Paul Simon, as an integral element of the drama. The nine male vocalists functioned like a Greek chorus, singing responses to the story and ritualistically reenacting the action Jacob described. Their pulsing, breathy singing style brought an element of unearthly beauty and transcendence to the production. Simonson’s emotionally direct staging fused an eclectic cast of American, South African and English actors (including John Mahoney, a Stepenwolf member as well as a much-employed film and TV perfomer, as a frustrated liberal lawyer; longtime Athol Fugard associate Zakes Mokae as Jacob’s father; and Los Angeles actor K. Todd Freeman, in a powerful portrayal of the disoriented, emotionally choked Jacob) into a seamless ensemble.
Despite its radically different subject matter, Comedians provided a similarly bracing view of black alienation and despair as prelude to nihilistic violence. Trevor Griffith’s 1975 play–originally set in a Manchester, England, comedy club where a class of aspiring stand-up comics facee their fina “exam,” a performance for an agent who may offer the best of them a contract–indicts the deadliness of British class divisions. Its young hero, Gethin Price, delivers a shockingly venomous routine in which he ritually assaults a pair of mannequins representing the upper class’s indiference to the plight of common people.
Griffiths himself worked with Chicago comedian Aaron Freeman and the play’s actors, under Simon’s direction, to reset the play in contemporary Chicago. The original characters–all white, all male–become a group of black and Latino men and a pair of white Irish-American women; the only remaining white male is, inevitably, the agent, who continues to wield power even though he’s out of touch with the reality the aspiring comedians are reflecting.
Though the pungency of Griffith’s brilliant original seems compromised by some token Chicagoizing, its main theme takes on new force through the reworked racial composition. The showdown between the anarchic Price (played in the Court production as a rabid, rapping rebel by dynamic Ramon Melindez Moses) and his elderly mentor, the once-great Eddie Waters (recreated in the mold of former Chicagoan Dick Gregory by Lex Monson) emerges as a standoff between the older man’s weary ideals of compassion and faith and the time-bomb ragee that is the younger man’s response to an unjust society that refuses to change.
“Some say the world will end in fire,” Price tells Waters at the play’s climax, quoting a poem that eerily echoes the opening lyrics of Jacob Zulu. “Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire. But if I had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction, ice also great and would suffice.”