WASHINGTON D.C. – While studying in college, I had an African American teacher who delighted in telling her students that she had been a Rhodes Scholar. After seeing the Studio Theatre’s excellent production of “The Fall”, that delight now seems quite odd.
The play, a behind-the-scenes look at the toppling of the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town on April 9, 2015, reveals the disdain that black students had for Rhodes, the founder of the prestigious award. A British Imperialist who called Africans barbaric and an inferior race, Rhodes’s statue was viewed by the students as a symbol of the way the university still celebrated white culture at the expense of other cultures.
For people of color, its Eurocentric curriculum, predominantly white governing council, unfair tenure process for black faculty and inadequate financial aid for black students, was a slap in the face 24 years after the ending of the racist Apartheid system.
So my question of why my professor would take pride in having received a scholarship from Rhodes’ foundation was among many that I walked away with and what I believe is the strength of this must see play.
Performed by The Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town (UCT), the play educates audiences and begs one to understand the impact and pain of institutional racism and why the ghosts of long dead African ancestors call out for true decolonization of Africa.
“The Fall” highlights the journey of seven UCT student activists, who were also drama students, participated in the #RhodesMustFall student protest that began on March 9, 2015 after a student hurled a bucket of human excrement onto the statue of Rhodes.
As voiced by one character, “Cecil John Rhodes. I learned about him in my second year African History course. It was then that I realized that the history they are teaching us is not the history of Africa but rather the history of how Britain and the Superpowers stole Africa and carved it up into little countries, with people like Leopold, Livingstone and Rhodes featuring as heroes.”
Over the next four weeks, hundreds of UTC students massed around the statue, covering it with graffiti, shielding it in black garbage bags and singing anti-Apartheid songs. With the numbers of protesters increasing to over 1,000, the group would occupy the university’s administration buildings, demanding a date for the removal of the statue to finish “the long overdue process of decolonizing” the university. The play chronicles the movement’s challenges and successes while questioning the significance of symbolic victories and struggling to shape social change.
Facilitated by UTC Professor Clare Stopford, the play is co-curated by alums Ameera Conrad and Thando Mangcu, who created the play, along with fellow alums Oarabile Ditsele, Kgomotso Khunoane, Tankiso Mamabolo, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Sihle Mnqwazana and Cleo Raatsu.
At 80 minutes, with no intermission, “The Fall” will keep you enthralled from beginning to end, filled with electrifying song and dance steeped in the unrelenting determination of the students who protested.
The alums play the students involved in the protests and each brings his or her own unique storytelling talents to the production, providing a compelling, and often a humorous look, at the moments that later would reverberate across the country.
With brutal frankness and honesty, the students debate and argue about the appropriate ways to fight for equality, voicing a variety of opinions and perspectives, including the risks.
For a student on financial aid, it can be the end of much needed assistance in a country where only 5 percent of black South African students who begin college graduate. For a medical student, protesting can mean that five years of studies can go to waste if important class work is missed.
For some women students, it is a demand that their voices be heard along with their male counterparts. For a gay student and a “colored,” it is a demand that their point of view also be respected.
The aftermath of #RhodesMustFall dovetailed with #FeesMustFall, a call by action that began in October 2015 in Johannesburg at the University of the Witwatersrand, when the administration announced that school fees would increase by 10.5 percent the following year. When UCT’s #FeesMustFall movement began, protestors barricaded campus entrances.
In the play, only three simple tables are used as set design, relying on the cast’s incredible voices, energetic dancing and heart-filled performances to carry the show. Mid-way through, actual live footage of some of the protests are projected behind the cast, showing how riot police used stun grenades, tear gas and Tasers on the protesters when they marched on the Parliament and demanded free, decolonized education.
For many that have been oppressed, the show’s moments of elation and fear are particularly moving, conjuring up images of the fight for civil rights in the American South. Additionally, with recent protests in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina where confederate statues were removed, the issue is even more close to home, particularly in Charlottesville, Virginia where clashes over the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, resulted in a woman’s death.
“The Fall” is a lesson in how one protester can grow a movement and how young people, particularly, are beginning to effectively produce positive change around the world. Powerful, pertinent and immensely timely, it is a must see for individuals who want to know how they can make a difference during these times when institutional racism still exists.
“The Fall” will be showing through Nov. 18. For tickets, visit studiotheatre.org.