South Africans went to the polls last week to vote in a general election, and, while the ruling African National Congress is expected to prevail, widespread anger and dissatisfaction over corruption and joblessness has already seen the party lose some ground in early results. The ANC began as a liberation movement, the party of Nelson Mandela, and can count on the unswerving loyalty of a generation who were there at the dismantling of apartheid in 1994. The allegiances of the younger “Born Frees,” however, are up for grabs.
In an unprecedented move, the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance — which has long battled the perception that it is a bastion of white privilege — fielded a black female anti-apartheid activist as its candidate for president.
It appears that South African women’s voices are increasingly being heard — many in outrage at the gunning down of Reeva Steenkamp by ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius, and in solidarity with the despairing parents of the 300 girls abducted and enslaved by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
From June 7 through June 29, in a guest production at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, women’s voices from South Africa’s past will be heard in a new production of Carole Eglash-Kosoff’s The Human Spirit. Originally a collection of true stories from the apartheid era, the play distills these moving, often shocking tales of ordinary women in a black township, who came to be known as the Mamas, and who banded together to ease the suffering of the “invisible” — women, children, the elderly. The Human Spirit is a taut and suspenseful piece of theater that illuminates the varied experiences of the struggle against apartheid, stripping away the anonymity of the powerless majority. It reveals, with occasional wry humor, the divergent motivations of those who fought the system, and who cobbled together unlikely alliances.
In 2006, Eglash-Kosoff lost her husband, brother and mother in swift succession, and from the depths of grief, reached out to a Jewish service organization that had made an appeal on National Public Radio (“I asked them if they might be interested in an old broad who was a bad Jew.”) She was sent off to teach in the townships of South Africa, where she met the women whose stories she was moved to document in her book, subtitled Apartheid’s Unheralded Heroes.
Presented in workshop to considerable acclaim last year, under the direction of Donald Squires, Eglash-Kosoff’s dramatization of her book employs twelve actor-storytellers who rotate through a multitude of roles, including the intransigent Prime Minister P.W. Botha. Squires notes that, while apartheid crumbled twenty years ago and many Americans barely fathom its significance, aspects of the protests and the individual struggles reflected in The Human Spirit resonate with 21st century audiences who are not just concerned about shifting political tides in South Africa, but also about the siloization of America, and about increasing racial and ethnic strife in pockets around the globe.
The World Premiere of THE HUMAN SPIRIT opens Saturday, June 7th with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm through June 29, 2014. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025. Tickets available online, or call 323-960-4412.