By Yazeed Kamaldien
‘Truth in Translation’ is everything contemporary theatre should ultimately be: a challenging story, a sterling cast, biting social commentary, and emotionally distorting.
It deals with apartheid and what a sigh of relief that it’s not a sympathy cry but instead a sorely needed reality check. Its central focus is the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) hearings which opened old wounds as persons who committed crimes in the name of apartheid stepped forward. Quite a few perpetrators asked to be forgiven by the families of those they may have tortured, amputated, or murdered. The mass confession attracted a global media pack hungry for the blood-soaked stories of post-apartheid South Africa. And so one of the lead characters in this play is an observant journalist (played by Andrew Buckland) who documents the hearings.
The central protagonists though are the interpreters who are employed in the opening scenes to work at the TRC. As they hear the testimonies at the hearings they inevitable become emotionally entangled, against their job description warning. It seems impossible to ask them to merely be the ‘pipes through which information flows’ as ‘the dead have begun to speak’. The interpreters battle with the visualisations of the testimonies. Their personal issues are also vented and there are arguments among them as each one battles to confront a loaded past. Thembi Mtshali-Jones soothes the characters with a few songs that are accompanied by a score directed by Hugh Masekela. Cleverly-timed humour saves this from being a sombre two hours of depression though, commenting also on the ability of the average South African to use humour – sometimes darker than required – as a mechanism to deal with the daily news. But even with the light-hearted moments this is an emotionally tormenting story. It challenges one with the details, mostly because it becomes hard to believe that the events were real. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose voice appears in the play, was spot on when he said ‘South Africans are wounded people.'
‘Truth in Translation’ is apt as part of the country’s collective understanding and healing. And every bigot who ever sent a nasty text message to the Cape Argus letters pages should ideally sit through this play. We all need this. Fortunately, the play isn’t crudely judgemental and doesn’t create a feeling of racial division by the time one leaves the theatre. It relates what happened right here and it’s saying that we’ve come through it. Now we need to deal with the hijackings, top-level corruption and Aids. The ensuing debate isn’t whether or not the TRC was successful. Besides, a single two-year process is hardly enough to heal decades of scarring. The real question is whether South Africans want to talk about the past. Or is collective amnesia the way to laugh away the strain? Are you ready for this?