The Pain of our Past in Classic Play
As I write this, it has been barely a week since Nelson Mandela passed away. All day, as I considered how to review Adam Small’s play The Orange Earth, which he describes as a “denouncement of the evil political system of Apartheid”, one of the memorials held for the former South African President played on the TV behind me. Reading The Orange Earth, which is the story of a political activist detained during Apartheid, I cannot help but think of Mandela and the many, many others who were unjustly arrested and imprisoned during that time.
Although The Orange Earth was written in 1978, it is only earlier this year that the text was published for the first time. The play follows Johnny Adams, a coloured man (he calls himself one of “the dusty people”) who is being tried for his suspected role in the bombing of a shopping centre during Apartheid. The play is structured as a series of dream-like memories revisited by Johnny during his trial and filtered through interactions with his wife, father and prison warden.
Arguably the best known of the celebrated writer and academic’s work, Small has described The Orange Earth as a fictionalised autobiography. The playwright refers to the play as “on- and ongoing”, perhaps in part because of its various versions. The play was initially written in Small’s first language, Afrikaans. He then translated it into English in 1984 to be broadcast as a radio play by the BBC. Small writes that “the drama’s Afrikaans version is somewhat tighter than the full length BBC text.” However, it’s the English version that is being reviewed here. Even in the notes around the play, Small is clear that, in his opinion, it is only through considering both versions that a director could do justice to the play, perhaps underlining the manifold dangers of segregation explored in The Orange Earth’s content.
That the play was eventually rewritten for radio seems clear when reading its opening. The first few pages are meant to be experienced in production as a soundscape, with the stage directions instructing that all lights be turned off in order for the audience to listen to “the unsettling voices in the dark.” Perhaps this particular focus on the sounds of words, particularly those describing confusion and terror, are also linked to Small’s prolific career as a poet. The play is lyrical, using repetition and ellipses to, perhaps, point to the struggle to articulate pain through words.
I reread The Orange Earth during the past week’s deluge of homages to Madiba, thinking of his speeches around the importance and necessity of forgiveness. This play feels like a reminder that behind forgiveness there is the memory of what came before, and perhaps after, it: pain.
The Orange Earth is a pain-filled text. The feeling of a harm which seems almost irreparable and the question of how to live in the face of it (especially when you are repeatedly told, as Johnny is, that you are not allowed to) is almost palpable in the play. It pulsates. One of the most searing images in The Orange Earth is a childhood memory returned to repeatedly. In it, Johnny’s mother is instructed by a white woman to move to the back of the house rather than approach the font door. “She looks right past her, as if Mamma isn’t there,” recalls Johnny. This memory, along with others, is dragged across the skin of the play repeatedly. That The Orange Earth is loosely based on the playwright’s own experiences is clear in his decision to include a photograph of his mother on the back cover. A similar picture is mentioned in the play. In it, she looks at the camera, a bloom tucked behind an ear, posies in one hand, the other holding out her flora dress. She is, herself, budding, full of potential. Beneath the picture it reads: “The playwright’s mother as a young woman, the girl who had to go around the back.” This is one of the strongest moments of The Orange Earth for me. Here she is, her position at the back now signifying her importance, her history, her existence. She is impossible to look past.
- Genna Gardini is a poet and playwright based in Cape Town. She is currently completing her MA Theatre-making (Playwriting) at UCT.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014