Black Dog/Inj’emnyama: A review

By Laurie Scarborough

This Barney Simon play was first performed in 1984, in the midst of a turbulent South African landscape. Now, just in time for Youth Day on 16 June, the University of Cape Town (UCT) Drama Department, in association with the Baxter Theatre, brings this piece to an audience in a country celebrating its momentous 21st year of democracy.

The play interweaves seven or eight character’s stories surrounding the Soweto Uprising riots, and looks at apartheid from several perspectives. As the lives of these characters are revealed to the audience, we see how the regime affected almost all the South African demographics: black men, black women, black children, “cape” coloured, Afrikaans white (female, children), English white (male), black urban compared to black rural. It’s hard to imagine a more inclusive cast with only seven members.

Upon entering the theatre, the audience can listen to real audio footage, mostly interviews and recordings of strikes, from apartheid. This firmly reminds the audience that although the piece showcases fictionalised characters, the larger truth behind their stories is tragically very real.

The flipside theatre is set up that the audience surrounds the stage from all four sides. The stage dressing is minimal but extremely effective, with a floor-to-ceiling chainlink fence boxing the stage area. This caging effect subtly mirrors the imprisonment and oppression of the South African majority during apartheid. A small raised platform stands in the centre of the enormous fence cube, used throughout the play as a sort of soapbox for the characters to tell the audience their story.

The stage was surrounded by a tall chainlink fence and bare, but for a small raised platform.
The stage was surrounded by a tall chainlink fence and bare, but for a small raised platform.

The actors, all third- or fourth-year students at UCT, are well-rehearsed and handle the heavy subject matter maturely and ably. Their good use of accents, voice and physicality aids their portrayals and make them a credit to the UCT drama programme. Their performances are individually very strong, but they also work together so well. This is particularly commendable considering that one of the cast members only joined the cast six days before opening night. The direction is also well thought-out and effectively uses a small cast to showcase many different stories.

This piece is challenging to watch, not only because of the confronting subject matter, but also because of its length. Spanning nearly two hours in a single act with no intermission, my lowly attention span was put to the test.

There were also points where I struggled to understand some of the dialogue, as it mixed English with Zulu (and at times Afrikaans too, although that was less challenging to understand). This somewhat alienated me from the story at times, but these moments weren’t too numerous and were usually points of humour.

Black Dog/Inj’emnyama shows at the Baxter Theatre until 27 June. Book tickets here.

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