More than a decade ago, when playwright L. Peter Callender heard friends tell stories of a visit to post-apartheid South Africa, he was intrigued with their tales. In particular, he was fascinated to hear how, at Truth and Reconciliation tribunals all over South Africa, victims of apartheid would sit on chairs and listen to the members of government security forces who had tortured and murdered thousands of Black South Africans in order to enforce the unjust system of apartheid. The torturers would confess and describe their actions in devestating detail, sometimes for the first time revealing what happened to the disappeared loved ones of their interrogators. The Black citizens of South Africa would then respond with gratitude, thanking their oppressors for their witness, and inviting them to work together to build a new, post apartheid nation. Callender found himself deeply moved by the spiritual strength that made possible such acceptance and reconciliation.
For a decade he mulled over a story to tell in drama that would explain the “Strange Courtesies” (a haunting phrase found in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra) of the victims of apartheid, as they listened to confessions and then, without seeking vengeance, thanked their oppressors for simply telling the truth.
Eventually, Callender developed his history-based fictional story of a single Black family (the Kwanzi family) whose oldest son, Zachariah, was kidnapped by security officer Arthur Prinzloo and never seen again. Years later, at a Truth and Reconiliation tribunal, Prinzloo describes the events to the family who accept his witness and presumably move on with their lives.
But do they, really? The family matriarch, Zenzile, becomes a shadow of herself. The family says that when Zachariah died they lost both a brother and a mother. The younger son, Jonnie, a bright high school student preparing for University, is fascinated by “Hamlet” and bent on thoughts of revenge.
But then Prinzloo, the security officer who confessed to killing Zachariah Kwanzi, falls prey to a nearly fatal attac and winds up in a hospital bed where it turns out his nurse is Nomusa Kwanzi, the family’s only daughter. Prinzloo is an unpleasant patient who objects to having a Black nurse and treats her rudely. Can Nomusa perform her duties with compassion under the circumstances? What will her family think of her new patient? Should she refuse to care for him?
As each family member (along with Nomusa’s supportive partner, Robert Seybold) responds to these circumstances, a story of spiritual struggle unfolds.
Will it really be possible for the family and the man who victimized them to truly achieve peace and reconiliation? Is there a truth that can set them free?
Callender, a brilliant Shakespearean actor, has written monologues and speeches for his characters that are, indeed, Shakespearean in their depth of passion and elegant language. He has also coached each of his actors to perform in a generous, demonstrative manner that is Shakespearean in size and depth. With language this engaging, and actors this passionate, it is easy forget about ZOOM and the emotions are as immediate and effecting as they would be on stage.
“Strange Courtesies” is an ensemble piece, with each actor being given equal opporuntities to shine, and shine they do. Biko Eisen-Martin, as Robert Seybold, is particular good in a role that was written with the actor in mind. As Prinzloo, the Afrikaan security officer, Robert Sicular makes certain that he is not a mere cardboard villain, but a man of depth whose character changes and develops over time. The rest of the cast is also quite wonderful including Adam Green as Zachariah (the son who dies), Marjorie Johnson as broken matriach Zenzile, Tshiwela Maangani as the compassionate nurse Nomusa, and Jamey Williams as young Jonny Kwanzi, bent on revenge.
“Strange Courtesies” is an outstanding premiere for both play and playwright, and deserves a long life with many future incarnations. Audiences will be moved.
‘Strange Courtesies’ is available to stream through March 8th, 2021. For further information, click here. To read an interview with playwright/director L. Peter Callender, click here.
Rating: ****(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Strange Courtesies” by L. Peter Callender. Presented by African American Shakespeare Company and San Jose Stage Company. Director: L. Peter Callender. Video Design And Editing: Derrick Scocchera. Costume Design: Madeline Berger. Sound Design: IMRSV Sound. Choreographer: Devin Parker Sullivan. Dramaturg: Leticia Lashell Ridley. Stage Manager: Allison F. Rich.
Biko Eisen-Martin : Robert Seybold. Adam Green: Zachariah Kwanzi. Marjorie Johnson: Zenzile Kwanzi. Tshiwela Maangani: Nomusa Kwanzi. Robert Sicular: Howard Arthur Prinzloo. Jamey Williams: Jonny Emanuel Kwanzi.