Brothers in blood.
Mike van Graan has deservedly gained a reputation as our leading contemporary political playwright--or, if that seems too bald and simplistic a statement, as a playwright who is not afraid to tackle head-on the issues that confront us in the 'new' South Africa. His plays tackle such sensitive issues as corruption, violence, HIV/ AIDS, and truth and reconciliation; they reach back to a tradition of politically engaged theatre dating from the 1970s and 1980s. By implication they urge us to guard against amnesia, apathy or cynicism. He has sometimes been accused of allowing the 'message' to dominate, of producing plays that serve as vehicles for dramatising particular positions--rather than providing fully realised dramatic encounters. I would argue that his plays are less programmatic and more interesting than might at first appear, and that they do not always conform entirely to his own description of what he is doing.
Brothers in Blood, which has just completed a successful run at the Artscape Arena in Cape Town is an interesting and provocative play. The author's intentions are fairly clear: the play, we are told, deals with an almost taboo subject, namely 'the relations between Jews, Muslims and Christians [in Cape Town]' (Author's Note 13). (2) In particular, it 'seeks to explore the human dimension in religious or cultural conflicts, to portray the 'other' as complex human beings with similar hopes, fears and dreams as ours' (13). As such, it seeks to avoid 'taking sides.'
The play does undeniably do some of these things. Its central character (and, supposedly, its representative Muslim) is Abubaker Abrahams (wonderfully played by David Dennis). He is a deeply cultured, sensitive and dignified man, a school headmaster, who is struggling to recover from two devastating losses. The first and most immediate of these is the loss of his wife and young daughter, killed (on the way to the corner shop) in crossfire between gang members. The second, still deeply felt, is the loss of his first home (and by extension his immediate community) as a result of apartheid-era forced removals. The first of these losses relates what is ostensibly the play's central subject, the scourge of drugs and gangsterism (seemingly endemic on the Cape Flats), and retaliatory action on the part of PAGAD (a vigilante group, People Against Gangsters and Drugs). The second of these losses reminds us of the enormous damage done to whole communities as a result of the state-sanctioned violence of apartheid--and it constructs an implicit link between forced removals and the proliferation of gang violence and drugs on the Cape Flats.
The pain and indignity suffered by Abrahams is vividly demonstrated on stage through his treatment by Cohen (a member of the local Neighbourhood Watch, who is Jewish). Abrahams is a deeply sympathetic character, one who is clearly a victim rather than a perpetrator of violence and injustice. The play's success hinges in no small part on the actor's moving and dignified representation of his character.
Some of the play's announced themes are clearly evident. The lead character's name appears as 'Abraham' on his driver's licence (he shows this to Cohen to identify himself). This is a mistake on the part of the licensing department, but Abrahams makes the point that this is the name of 'our forefather': Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all 'Abrahamic' faiths, and by implication they have (or should have) much in common. (Why then, a history of suspicion and hatred?) Then there is the fez, the ' marker' which most obviously identifies Abrahams as Muslim--and which arouses Cohen's suspicions when he encounters Abrahams while on duty for his Neighbourhood Watch. This reaction is a 'mistake' on Cohen's part and links with the theme of mistaken identity. The play demonstrates that before Abrahams is a Muslim, he is a human being with the same needs, impulses and feelings as any one of us. This is dramatised most effectively when Van Graan puts the words of Shylock's famous speech about Jews into Abrahams' mouth; this comes at one point in the prolonged encounter between Abrahams and Cohen, which is the dramatic centre of the play.
So what we have here is a drama of misidentification: one cannot judge a man because he wears a fez--or because his name is Cohen. 'You don't know me' (67), says Abrahams to Cohen at one point. This is central to the play's humanist message, and to its determination to subvert stereotypes. One cannot help but notice that Cohen and Abrahams hardly conform to any easily identifiable type. Abrahams is at most a sympathiser or fringe supporter of PAGAD: one cannot imagine him planting bombs that could kill or maim, or setting a gang leader alight (actions that the media, at least, have attributed to PAGAD). It is only the grievous human loss that he has suffered that drives him towards PAGAD. This mild-mannered, cultivated man in fact finds it impossible to justify vengeance (Shylock notwithstanding), and at the end of the play he intervenes to save Cohen.
This leads to a number of questions. Clearly there must have been some hard men at the centre of PAGAD and, whatever their motives, vigilante justice is at best a kind of wild justice: no society can allow people to take the law into their own hands. This is where the play seems to pull its punches: if Abrahams is its representative of PAGAD, then, arguably, this organisation is being let off rather lightly. One could, of course argue that the play is deliberately subverting the stereotype of the fundamentalist, bomb-planting Islamist. This is well and good, but can the play at the same time claim to be representing realistically or responding to the kind of fervour that animated PAGAD and drove the events that played out in Cape Town in the late 1990s? (The play text foregrounds these events by calling for projected images--for example, of a militant community march--on a screen at various points.) (3)
In what could seen as be a further subversion of stereotypes, this kind if fervour is reserved for the play's least sympathetic character, the Reverend Fredericks. A born-again Christian, he comes across as intolerant and judgmental--a Christian fundamentalist, in fact--and a far cry from the deeply sympathetic Abubaker Abrahams. This may seem to be a case of the playwright loading the dice--although Fredericks is partly humanised by the discovery that his drug-addicted son committed suicide. (We also discover that his daughter Katharine--whom he disowns--has converted to Islam and taken the name Rashieda!) This is a form of ironic reversal, whereby the charge of fundamentalism is transferred from Islam to Christianity. The effect may be to demonstrate that Christianity and Islam breed similar kinds of intolerance and extremism. If so, this would reinforce the secular humanism which (I would argue) is central to the play. However, the effect may also be to let PAGAD off the hook by deflecting our attention from this organisation to the virulent form of Christianity espoused by the Rev. Fredericks.
Abrahams's counterpart, Cohen, is supposedly the play's representative of Judaism. However, he declares at the outset that he doesn't 'do God' (21), and his Judaism is no more than a cultural remnant--'a heritage thing' that he only observes 'for the kids.' He is clearly no Zionist, and seems as embarrassed by his ties to Israel as he is by his identity as a white South African male. These are identities which others might impose on him, but which he seeks to escape. Far from being identified with any religious viewpoint, he is in fact a secular humanist, and (like his supposed adversary, Abubaker Abrahams) he articulates what seem to be the play's core values, which are humane and libertarian. He is a medical doctor who works at a clinic in a 'coloured' neighbourhood on the Cape Flats, where he performs abortions, often for women who are survivors of rape. His enlightened, secular attitudes (and his defence of women's constitutional right to abortion), place him at odds with the uncompromising 'right to life' attitudes articulated most forcefully by the Rev. Fredericks and by the play's other Muslim, Fadiel, the Somalian refugee. In what is perhaps a rather transparent plot device, Fadiel falls in love with Abrahams's daughter, Leila, and is desperate to prevent her from aborting the life of their unborn child. (The play does seem over-schematic at times.)
The play's central irony is the gradual revelation of how much its two antagonists, Abrahams and Cohen, actually have in common. In spite of their superficial religious differences and the baggage of mutual suspicion which they both carry, they are fundamentally decent men who wish to protect their families and their communities (from real or imagined threats.) Neither would willingly hurt or abuse another human being, and both are brought by force of circumstance and by the societal positions which they occupy into apparent opposition to each other. The real drama of the play lies in their mutual discovery that they need not be enemies, and in our recognition that they are much more similar than they are dissimilar. (4)
However, the burden of the past looms large; this is something that neither can escape. For Abrahams this comes in the form of the (still keenly felt) injury inflicted by forced removals and racial classification. Cohen, on the other hand, has to grapple with his historical culpability: as a white South African he was necessarily a beneficiary of apartheid, however much he may disavow this now and identify with the new, non-racial post-apartheid dispensation--the South Africa of Mandela. This is a no-win predicament which--as a doctor and a human being--he resists with every fibre of his being. At the end of the play we are left with his anguish at the position he finds himself in, expressed in his question to his therapist: 'What should I do, Gerald? Pack for Perth?' (102) (Another irony: Australia was also the chosen destination of Abrahams's two adult daughters!) The subtext of the play is the historical predicament and the social conditioning which drives well-meaning South Africans into opposing camps--or into self-imposed exile. Seen in this light, the play is a version of an archetypal South African story.
The play weaves a complex web, revealing the sometimes surprising ways in which our lives intersect, and the often unexpected ways in which we are interconnected--'the six degrees of separation' theme, mentioned by Cohen in his opening speech (21). Does the play do what it seemingly sets out to do? Not entirely --but it may be a more interesting play as result. Its examination of the issues around PAGAD and drugs and vigilante action is only partly convincing. Does it deconstruct stereotypes? Yes, but perhaps at the expense of its claim to be 'exploring the tensions and torsions between Jew, Muslim and Christian in a violence-torn and fundamentalism-bruised contemporary South Africa' (the quote is taken from the blurb on the back cover of the Junkets edition). For all these somewhat sensational claims, the play in fact explores our shared humanity, our mutual obligations and our complicity in each other's lives.
Perhaps the play's least convincing extremist (5) is Fadiel, a Somali refugee drawn to South Africa to escape sectarian violence in his native Somalia--and by the promise of better prospects in Mandela's post-1994 South Africa--'This was a land of milk and honey' (33). He has (like Abrahams and Fredericks) suffered a grievous personal loss--his father is the sixth Somalian shopkeeper to have been shot and killed that year. He falls in love with Abrahams' daughter, Leila (who falls pregnant--another mistake!). When she refuses his appeal to save the life of their unborn child, he attempts to set the clinic--and Dr Cohen--alight. At this point the issues around PAGAD, drugs and gangsterism fade into the background as the controversy around abortion takes centre stage. Here there is a great deal of common ground in the positions of the three religions, whose more zealous followers usually adopt a 'right to life' position. In the play this is articulated most forcefully by Fadiel, but he is driven more by his anguish at the denial of his paternal rights and by a determination to save the life of his unborn child than by any abstract religious principle. In the play the 'right to life' position conflicts, firstly, with the secular humanism espoused by Cohen, and secondly, with Leila's assertion of her right to control her own body and decide on a termination.
This shift in the play's focus is somewhat at odds with the claim to be exploring inter-faith conflict, and leads to a somewhat contrived and melodramatic conclusion. Fadiel, surely a most unlikely 'monster', attempts to set fire to the clinic (and to the unfortunate Dr Cohen). Leila's father (Abrahams) reluctantly accepts that his daughter has the right to make her own decision, and intervenes to protect first Cohen and then Fadiel. A shooting takes place--another of the 'mistakes' that drive the action of the play. Leila, the unintended victim, survives the shooting (but her unborn child does not). Everyone, in fact, ends up being rescued from the consequences of their intended actions: Fadiel is denied martyrdom (and does not kill Cohen); Leila does not in fact abort her child; Cohen does not kill Fadiel. The supposedly central issue of PAGAD and vigilantism is left in abeyance (the play does not create a link between Fadiel and PAGAD). Instead we have Abrahams (Shylock's speech notwithstanding) urging Cohen (whose life has just been threatened) to turn away from 'revenge.' Prospero's words, 'The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance' (The Tempest V.i.36) could perhaps serve as the subtext of the play.
Disaster and loss of life are averted, but are the play's self-proclaimed issues resolved? Perhaps this is a play that has too many balls in the air, and is uncertain as to how to resolve all the issues which it raises. The play in fact explores the uncertainties and inner conflicts of its two central characters, Abrahams and Cohen, who discover how much they resemble each other. Abrahams never does lay charges against Cohen, and Cohen resigns from the Neighbourhood Watch rather than take action against Abrahams. It is this compelling human drama which, it turns out, is central to the play. Human decency and tolerance win out in the end. The play implicitly questions the resort to vigilante violence (whatever form this may take). The recent necklacing and torching of suspected criminals in Khayelitsha (Cape Town) are a grim reminder of the horrors that we thought we had escaped (Mackay 2012).
A footnote: I am left wondering about Mogamat Davids, the drug dealer on the Cape Flats, against whom the police fail to act, and whose drug-pushing would have contributed to the suicide of Rev. Fredericks's son. He never speaks, or appears on stage, although in terms of the play's logic he, too, may not be a 'monster.' By not dramatising his position, or exploring his circumstances, the play implicitly withholds understanding. This leaves unresolved the difficult question: what does one do about people like Mogamat Davids? It's an important question, since it was people like Davids who gave rise to PAGAD in the first place.
Finally, a word about Robin Malan and Junkets Publishers. It is a great pleasure to be able to buy an edition of the play--hot off the press--at the same time as the stage production is being performed. These slim, reasonably priced, well-produced editions help to demonstrate that theatre in South Africa is alive and well.
Mackay, M. 2012. Necklacing up in Khayelitsha. The Sowetan, 30 March. Available at: http:// www.sowetanlive.co.za/news/2012/03/30/necklacing-up-in-khayelitsha.
Van Graan, M. 2006. Brothers in Blood. Available at: http://www.mikevangraan.co.za/plays/ drama/brothers-in-blood-2009.
Emeritus Senior Lecturer, University of Stellenbosch
(c) 2012, Rob Gaylard
(1.) The text of the play was published in conjunction with the Cape Town performance in 2012, reviewed here.
(2.) Page numbers refer to the published (2012) Junkets edition of Brothers in Blood, which carries an Author's Note and a Director's Introduction. The writing of the play was made possible through a writing fellowship funded by Charles Diamond, a South African businessman living in London. It was written in the course of 2006, went through a number of revisions, and was first performed at the Market Theatre on 28 May 2009.
(3.) In the production I saw these 'powerful, unsettling' (26) images were not in fact displayed. This is unfortunate, as it would have influenced the audience's reaction to the play. Was this a directorial decision?
(4.) Van Graan's comment on the play on his website is very much in keeping with this reading: 'Brothers in Blood explores the religious and racial fault lines of our society, where ignorance about the other, religious arrogance and racial prejudice combine to alienate human beings from each other ... even those who might have many things in common.'
(5.) Abrahams and Cohen are not extremists at all, in fact.
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|Publication:||South African Theatre Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2012|
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