When: Through Feb. 23
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre Upstairs, 800 E. Grand
Info: (312) 595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com
Run time: 80 minutes with no intermission)
Theater, and the human stories it can tell, became a crucial tool for teaching the world about the horrors of apartheid, the brutal system of racial segregation enforced in South Africa from 1948-1994. The plays of Athol Fugard, and the work of many others at the pioneering Market Theatre of Johannesburg, were almost always about the personal costs of the system rather than outright political dogma, even if politics was never far from the surface.
That tradition continues in the work of Omphile Molusi, the impassioned young actor, writer and director whose latest show, the intense and intensely moving 80-minute "Cadre," is receiving its world premiere as part of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's invaluable World's Stage series.
With writing that is direct and unadorned, acting that is immediate, visceral and unaffected, and an almost childlike physicality that creates a music all its own, "Cadre" casts a spell at once guileless and sophisticated. It is what those theater masters Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook once called "poor theater," though "essential theater" might be a far more accurate term.
Unfolding in the years between 1965 and 1994, "Cadre," inspired by the life of Molusi's uncle, looks at a less familiar aspect of the apartheid era. That struggle has usually been told in terms of a minority white, Afrikaner-dominated National Party as the oppressors on one side, and, on the other, the black ANC (African National Congress), buttressed by some progressive white sympathizers, leading the struggle for liberation and winning the first democratic elections in 1994.
But such situations (as we see in the Middle East right now), are never so simple. Splitting from the ANC was the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), which believed the South African government should consist only of black people. And Molusi's story is about two brothers tragically caught up in that part of the movement -- a tale that will perhaps be unfamiliar even to the generation who grew up in post-apartheid South Africa. (THAT audience will be able to see the show at the Market Theatre beginning March 18.)
Molusi (familiar here from his acclaimed 2010 solo show, "Itsoseng") plays Gregory, who is a young boy in 1965. His older brother (played by the expertly morphing Sello Motloung), has joined the radical PAC group, much to the chagrin of the boys' Christian father (also played by Motloung). The thought that Gregory might die by following in his older brother's footsteps terrifies and enrages the man. Gregory's mother (the astonishing Lillian Tshabalala) can only look on helplessly.
Gregory develops a crush on little Sasha (Tshabalala, who can change age in seconds), with whom he swears lifelong allegiance when her family is forced to move. Then, when his older brother is killed, Gregory runs off and joins the PAC. Before long he is caught delivering messages, brutally beaten and imprisoned for 11 years. Eventually rescued, he begins work as a double agent for PAC, serving South Africa's white leader, Pieter Botha ("The Big Crocodile," played ideally by Motloung), realizing he must "kill or be killed" to maintain his cover, and facing ever escalating tragedy.
All this storytelling (in English) unfolds on a stage decorated only with sheets hung from poles and a simple bench. And in league with his fellow actors, Molusi, a performer of enormous heat, warmth and soulfulness, keeps us riveted. A bit of artful shadowplay, and a series of mournful African songs performed in Setswana, Zulu and Xhosa, are the only other things needed.
"What is freedom without love?," Gregory asks when almost all is lost. No doubt there are many young revolutionaries today asking the same question.