Omphile Molusi fills the stage with raw emotion and creative, graceful storytelling in his small-ensemble production of Cadreat the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST). Running until February 23rd, this production is part of Chicago’s World stage series, a program that brings international productions, thus far from over 16 countries, to the CST stage. Cadre will soon be performed in its home country of South Africa, where the play was developed and is set.
Cadre draws inspiration from true events to show a portrait of an activist, Gregory, in the apartheid era of South Africa. The play ranges from the 1960s until the fall of Apartheid in 1994, showing stories of the protagonist’s personal and political journey. He struggles to make sense of his life and navigate his way through a tumultuous political landscape. Driven by a desire to be reunited with his young love, he takes on many roles-revolutionary, murderer, complacent- landing at the seat of revolution with a broken sense of self.
The lead actor, Omphile Molusi, is also the playwright of this piece. Along with his big, bright onstage presence is Sello Motloung and Lillian Tshabalala, who play the rest of the characters in the play. The versatility of the supporting actors is incredible, event though the constant changes in character are often difficult to keep pace with. At times, the script must be overly illustrative to calm confusion. “I’m white, you’re black,” overstates Tshabalala as an abusive police officer, “can’t you tell the difference between us?” It’s at once awkward, necessary and interesting to see the actors wear so may costumes that only sometimes fit them.
The set is simple and effective- beige cloths draped from clotheslines that create not only a lovely, unstuffy background but also set a screen for clever shadow-puppetry, evocative backlighting and expressive silhouettes. The show begins with a light rising behind the screen to create a great African sunrise. Shadow puppets dramatize events and mark time periods. The crafty aesthetic of the set design and use of shadow puppets well with the piece. Like the scripts, it feels personal, authentic, organic and unglossy.
There is a charm to this DIY aesthetic and also a downfall. The costumes seem like an afterthought, which is a pity as they could provide some excellent expressive possibilities and help differentiate characters. With Motloung and Tshabalala playing so many people, it is sometimes difficult to not mix people up, and it doesn’t help that the costumes sometimes change very little. Molusi goes through 40 years of his life in the same crisp sweatshirt- a modern piece that looks fresh from the racks of American Apparel-about 50 years too late. Small oversights in aesthetic sensibilities compromise the overall effect of a moving and effective piece. The last scene shows most clothes and sheets ripped down, leaving from a large collection of items- 3 hats and a bra. But why? In a piece with such a simple, pared down set and design, small, arbitrary details become distracting and unravel the smooth, strong, weave of the narrative.
What the play lacks in design finesse and attention to detail it makes up quality of performance. The play is punctuated with African folksongs performed in Setswana, Zulu and Xhosa by the cast, and they are absolutely gorgeous. The acting, too, is stunning, honest and poignant. Tshabala’s voice is heart-wrenchingly beautiful and so is her ability to communicate a character; she plays the heartbroken mother, the playful schoolgirl and the nasty police officer with equal precision. Moloung, in various characters from an aggressive father to a corrupt Boer police officer, captures the essence of a hyper-masculinity created by oppression and fear, yet manages to give his characters an unexpected shadow of vulnerability. Molusi is a lovely, full spirit onstage; he radiates. You don’t feel for Gregory, you feel along with him, you share his pain and joy. He is all earnest emotion and genuine love.
This is mirrored in Molusi’s personality spilling over into his non-onstage presence. At the opening reception, when he was being introduced and praised, he wept into his hands with gratitude and joy. This big-heartedness is reflected in his script as well, which shows a deep compassion and love for many characters. “Lord, forgive us all,” is a phrase that echoes from many characters, often with a hint of irony or resignation. Yet despite a deep anger for the injustices and horrors of the past, Molusi seems to steer towards forgiveness. While he doesn’t let oppressors off the hook, he does draw attention to the ways that good-hearted people are placed in evil situations and take on evil roles accordingly.
Cadre “teaches us to take care of the present, so that we don’t go back so that we have a better future in the world.” This deeply forgiving, deeply loving, deeply angry play hopes for a better world and is deeply forgiving of the past. You’ll also be forgiving of the plays flaws when you allow yourself to swept away with Molusi’s charm and radiance.