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This show from South Africa brings a real-life protest to the stage

Written by
Ben Neutze

In April 2015, a student protest at the University of Cape Town (UCT) grabbed headlines all around the world. Using the hashtag #RhodesMustFall, students across the campus joined together to have a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes removed. 

Not only was Rhodes a controversial figure, representing the colonial systems that oppressed many of black people living in South Africa, the statue stood in one of the most prominent positions on campus. Public opinion was bitterly divided across South Africa, but the students eventually succeeded, with the UCT Council voting to remove the statue.

In the months following the statue's removal, seven post-graduate students from UCT wrote and performed a piece of theatre about their experiences with the movement. The Fall is that story and has now played Edinburgh Fringe, London and New York. It's playing a short season in Melbourne as part of the Arts Centre's "Big World, Up Close" program. We spoke to one of the cast members, Ameera Conrad, about Rhodes Must Fall and the theatre she made from it.

Where did the idea come from to create a piece of theatre about your own experiences in the Rhodes Must Fall protests?
We were all at UCT in 2015 when the protests had started; as young students of colour we had all become involved in the movement in some or other way during the year. It was actually at the same time that the drama department was doing a Barney Simon season of plays. Now Barney Simon was one of the major anti-apartheid theatre makers in South Africa in the '80s, and most of the cast were performing in Black Dog/Injemnyama, a Barney Simon play about the student protests in 1976 in Soweto. Clare Stopford, who’s the facilitator for The Fall, directed that production. It was subsequently picked up by the Baxter Theatre for a short run, which was incredibly successful. I think that’s when the Baxter CEO, Lara Foot, got to thinking, you know, if we could tell stories about protests in the past, why not tell the stories that we are physically a part of in the present? It was perfect timing because the group of actors were thinking about finding a way of communicating the issues that the student movement had raised, and thinking of a new way to contribute to the activism through our art. The two moments collided and resulted in The Fall. At the heart of it, we wanted to tell people about why we had marched, we wanted to explain the intricacies of the movement and the people within it, and we wanted to give a different narrative to the one portrayed in the media. 

How do you turn a political movement into something theatrical?
We started with some facts, we timelined the events and had a few sessions of recalling where we were and what we experienced. We moved from that to researching and speaking to other members of the movement, so that we could figure out how to present the story most effectively. Initially, we tried to make it super artsy and to try to push the mould of theatre, but then we realised that the best way to make this play would be to be as honest and open as possible. To not try to represent everything and everyone, but to speak directly to our own questions and issues. 

What was public sentiment like around South Africa to the movement?
It was quite mixed. A lot of people didn’t understand what the movement was about or why we were protesting a statue – not realising that the issues are much larger than a statue of a colonialist. There was some sympathy, but a lot of antagonism both online and physically in the spaces which were created to be as safe as possible for students and lecturers who wanted to protest. I think there was a lot of ignorance around the issues and a lot of purposeful misdirection by some, without looking deeper into what was at the heart of the movement.  

Why was it so important that this statue – a symbol – by physically removed?
The biggest thing about the statue being removed was that it was a symbolic celebration of the oppression of people of colour. Rhodes’ statue wasn’t a small bust with a plaque about who he was and what he did tucked away in one of the UCT archives. It was a huge statue set atop a wide plinth in the middle of the stairwell leading up to the main hall of UCT. It looked out on the UCT fields and onto the Cape Flats and Townships – areas of extreme poverty which are occupied by only people of colour. The fact that students of colour were forced to walk past him, to walk under him, on land that he stole from the native people, on a campus that he bequeathed to the city so that white Englishmen could get an English education even in the deepest darkest Africa. The statue wasn’t about historical relevance or anything like that, it was about power. 

Most Australians wouldn't know a lot about campus politics in South Africa. One of the goals of the movement was to decolonise education across South Africa. What exactly does that involve?
Decolonisation can mean different things to different people, depending on where your interest lies. In essence it’s about giving former colonies the recognition they deserve. It’s about refocusing the lens of how we view things from a western ideal to a global ideal. It’s about recognising the achievements and contributions of people of colour around the world, from the Aztecs to the Aboriginal people. It’s also about recognising the structural inequalities that were established by our colonisers to cement their hierarchy for centuries to come, and fighting to dismantle those inequalities at their core, not just on the surface. 

The show has travelled now to England, where Rhodes is actually from, what was the response like there?
We performed at the Royal Court in London, a theatre which is very progressive and very invested in new global texts. It was really a wonderful space for this show. We were sold out before we arrived, I think! And the response was incredible, every night we would go down to the theatre bar and have long discussions with audience members who had seen the show and were very touched by it and what it is trying to say. We’ve had similar responses from people all over the world – these issues, while they’re set in a South African context in this play, aren’t only South African issues. Patriarchy, racism, classism, gender, these are all issues that face people everywhere. 

The Fall is at Arts Centre Melbourne from August 28 to September 2.

See our hit-list of the best shows in Melbourne this month and our hints for nabbing cheap theatre tickets.

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