Theatre of the Unjust

If crimes against humanity were theatre, what form would they take? That is the question African dance-theatre artists Panaibra Canda and Boyze Cekwana raise in “The Inkomati (dis)cord,” at New York Live Arts as part of the Crossing the Line festival earlier this fall, and the question I consider in my review of the production for the Australian dance magazine Fjord Review.

 Here is a chunk from the middle of that review:

In 1984, a newly independent Mozambique, long under Portuguese rule, agreed to stop harboring members of the African National Congress (ANC), banned from South Africa since 1960, if South Africa would cease funding insurgents set against the new Mozambique. This seemingly straightforward reinforcement of national unity–‘I won’t house your enemy if you don’t fund mine’– depended on the pretense that the apartheid regime and an independent democracy stood level, equal trading partners on the diplomatic exchange. The Accord imagined it was even possible for Mozambique to choose between its own newfound democracy and South Africans’ forbidden hope for one. But Mozambique did choose, and lost nearly everything in the bargain. According to “The Inkomati (dis)cord”, Mozambique’s signing of the Accord set it at war with itself–a struggle of principles that complemented its already-raging civil war. 

 In the show’s one extended dance episode, Canda is outfitted in bushwhacker khaki, with its pale shades of colonialism. Moments earlier he was saluting his countrymen in Portuguese, as if in an official capacity. ‘Comrades,’ he began again and again, a Marxist revolutionary stuck at introductions. Maria Tembe, the Mozambican whose account will later get mangled, has mainly kept to a wheelchair until now. She has no legs. This fact has everything to do with how the Accord played out. As recently as 2008, Mozambique numbered ninth in the world in amputees–between Somalia and Bosnia-Herzevogina–because Mozambique’s civil war, which dragged on from 1977 until 1994, left 3 million landmines in its wake. The anti-government guerillas had planted the bulk of the explosives, even after the Nkomati Accord was signed, because the apartheid regime defied the interdiction against supporting them. 

 The duet begins with Canda throwing Tembe on to her back like a sack of flour. The audience gasps. But she proves unbreakable, buoyant even, as if her loss of limb had merely consolidated power in her torso. Indeed, power keeps shifting between the two Mozambicans. Persistent, unflinching, unreadable, Tembe–the most exceptional of the four fine performers–clamps on to Canda’s stomach and back like a baby primate. She perches beside him on one hip as if they were lovers in silent communion at a picnic on the grass. She hangs from his neck like a burden to bear. She cannot be easily peeled off. 

 He doesn’t always want her off. She fits perfectly along his torso: none of the usual dangle of legs that gets in the way of plane molding to plane. He reneges the vertical to offer her surfaces to climb upon, flattening out like a crab or a four-legged creature on a lope. It is she who distances herself from him most often, her long arms propelling her forward on her butt with alarming speed. 

 Though Tembe’s leglessness evokes Mozambique’s civil war, the duet conjures a more intimate, more internal struggle. Whether as baby or lover or a lodestone Canda is eager to offload, Tembe belongs to him. She is part of him, the casualty in his, in Mozambique’s, bid for freedom, including the moment he forgot what he was fighting for.

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Maria Tembe atop Panaibra Canda in The Inkomati (dis)cord. Photo by Ian Douglas courtesy of New York Live Arts and Crossing the Line. 

Dance usually leaves the political to more voluble idioms, such as theatre, literature or film. In its muteness it lends itself less to crisp conceptual distinctions that benefit from words than to messy psychological and emotional truths that language risks oversimplifying in its yen for parsing and its eagerness to clarify. But politics can be multivalent too–certainly at the point that it materializes in people’s lives and bodies. And “(dis)cord”‘s creators understand that what starts as a purely physical puzzle, such as how to fashion a duet between a dancer with legs and another without, can achieve vast allegorical and analogical reach. They appreciate that though dance may not be able to untie the knottier points of politics it excels at anatomizing power and embodying ideals: the balancing and toppling, the pushing and pulling and felling; the dependency, interdependency, codependency, and independence. If the Accord began with paper documents and devolved into massive bodily damage, the duet in “(dis)cord,” like so much dance, reverses the process. From the body, a vision of a nation’s catastrophic catch-22 emerges. 

 Cekwana and Canda have said they are intent on creating an idiom adequate to the tragedies and aspirations of their native land; among “(dis)cord”‘s various experiments in theatre this duet comes closest to that goal. Otherwise, “The Inkomati (dis)cord” only drops hints. But the hints are ripe. 

For the full review, in which I consider what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings suggest about a model for southern African theatre, click here.

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