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Asinamali! (04/23/1987 - 05/17/1987)


New York Daily News: "A Tale of Oppression and Laughter"

"Asinamali!" opened originally at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater September 10, 1986. It transferred to the Jack Lawrence Theatre on April 23, 1987.

Like a number of plays that have come from South Africa, "Asinamali!," the first play in "Woza Afrika," a festival of South African theater, is full of overt theatricality. The five man cast all play a variety of roles - sometimes oppressed blacks, sometimes oppressing whites.

In part, this stems from the circumstances of black theater in South Africa. Black actors must create their work in church basements, schools, community halls or market places, not fully equipped theaters. This inevitably gives their plays a wonderfully improvisatory quality. Forced to work with the barest essentials, they turn their bodies into remarkably versatile instruments. Like artists whose every brush stroke is full of energy and emotion, these actors, with a minimum of effort, can show deep pain and sharp caricature.

Beyond what is forced on them by economic and political conditions, the conscious "play-acting" in South African plays seems to have a deeper meaning. If you present an intolerable situation straightforwardly and naturalistically, the audience can nod its head and feel self-righteous. If you make them laugh, they're more inclined to wince and feel a pang of guilt.

"Asinamali!" literallyh means "We have no money." It was a political war cry in response to proposed rent increases in a black township. The play is about five convicts, one of whom worked with the man who first used the slogan and who was eventually martyred.

As the five men tell us what landed them in jail we get a panoramic view - sometimes disturbing, sometimes wildly funny - of everyday life in black South Africa. "Asinamali!" is remarkable in that it doesn't present only situations of injustice and hardship. One of the characters is Brother Tony, who is described as "a brilliant pickpocket" and "a specialist in dealing with workers on payday." We realize apartheid - a word we never hear in the play - creates scalawags as well as martyrs.

The five actors approach their work with ferocious energy. Whether they are playing the indifferent officials in an unfair trial or Chaplinesque factory workers or victims of an insane bureaucracy, they command the stage with the vitality of jazz musicians whose every lick comes from the gut. They control the audience with great skill, fielding laughter with aplomb and building to the one moment of confrontation with assurance and finesse.

All they have in the way of a physical production is five straight-backed wooden chairs, some makeshift costumes and artful lighting by Mannie Manim.

What gives "Asinamali!" a dimension beyond that of most political theater is its exhilarating African music. With its rich harmonies, its rhythmic spring and its joyful spirit, the music stands in dramatic contrast to the often grim stories the men tell. It is a reminder of the openness and freedom of the not so distant past.


New York Daily News

New York Post: "'Woza!': in the heart of blackness"

"Asinamali!" opened originally at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater September 10, 1986. It transferred to the Jack Lawrence Theatre on April 23, 1987.

The real heroes of "Woza Afrika!" - the four-week festival of South African plays opening the season at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater - are all imprisoned or dead. They are the political leaders of the black South African freedom movement, and they were executed by death squads, killed in the streets, or thrown into jail for resisting unfair and inhuman government policies toward people of color.

One of the dead was the producer of "Asinamali!," the colorful prison drama that opens the festival. According to playwright Mbongeni Ngema, the producer was murdered by vigilantes who attacked the black township theater where his play was being performed.

In one of the drama's most stirring moments, the cast members recite a litany of the dead and the exiled, recalling the names of Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, and many others - and of Msizi Dube, whose leadership of a 1983 rent revolt in a Durban township cost him his life and inspired this play.

The bloody background of "Asinamali!" - which in Zulu means "We have no money" and was the rallying cry of the protesters - gives the drama a profound potency. But to the credit of playwright Mbongeni Ngema, who also directed the extraordinary cast, the sheer theatricality of the piece can stand tall on its own legs.

The five prison mates who share their experiences in song, dance, and narrative represent a cross-section of the black prison populace and the activities that got them jailed. There are the ill-fated ones, like the migrant laborer played by Bongani Hlophe, whose panic over finding work to support his family drives him to murder. There are the innocent, unfairly condemned because of their skin color, and the unlucky, like the burly lover of a white woman, caught by her husband.

And then there is the young activist, played with passionate conviction by Bhoyi Ngema, who worked alongside the political martyr Msizi Dube, protesting the government rent increases that proved the last straw for the disenfranchised residents of a small township.

The solidarity of the prisoners moves us in different ways: The way they sleep, like children, in a curled mass. The ancient racial bond expressed in their ritualized songs and movement. And most of all, the shared anger and hurt at government injustice which gives them a common political voice that clamors to be heard.

Although the voice of "Asinamali!" can only be heard for another few performances (to Sunday), the Woza Afrika festival continues through Nov. 2, with five more plays.

New York Post

New York Times: "South Africa's 'Asinamali!'"

"Asinamali!" opened originally at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater September 10, 1986. It transferred to the Jack Lawrence Theatre on April 23, 1987.

In ''Asinamali!,'' the first offering of Lincoln Center's monthlong South African theater festival, five black men sing, dance and shout unceasingly for 90 frenetic minutes - almost as if they feared that to stand still might be to surrender or to die. And that may well be the overriding point of this stunningly performed tapestry of satire, tragedy and reportage from the land of apartheid. What can people do when denied their rights, their dignity, their families, their lives? The men of ''Asinamali!'' turn not only their harsh experience but also their voices and bodies, their every sound and gesture, into protest art. In this kinetic theatrical event, each rapid-fire breath is a volley of defiance against the repressive state.

''Asinamali!,'' now at the Newhouse, takes its title from a Zulu slogan, meaning ''We have no money!,'' that was the rallying cry of a 1983 rent strike in Lamontville township. The form of the work is simple: The five performers portray prisoners in a South African jail who successively act out the travails that led to their incarceration. The stories told will come as no surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the society under examination. The men of ''Asinamali!'' have been variously victimized by racist laws, unemployment, forced separation from their families, violent police tactics and a seeming infinity of daily humiliations. There is some dark humor percolating beneath the horrors - notably when Thami Celi relives an illicit affair with a sexually starved Afrikaner farm proprietress - but not much. While a courtroom scene is sometimes played for dark comedy, it's hard to laugh at a stacked judicial system that makes the logic of Catch-22 seem as rational and humane as Robert's Rules of Order.

What makes ''Asinamali!'' special is less the sadly familiar cases it has to recount than the way in which it presents them. Mbongeni Ngema, the author and director, hasn't conceived this work as a living newspaper or any other form of documentary agitprop drama, but as full-throttle theater. ''Asinamali!'' is not something one could see on the evening news - even if the South African Government didn't censor the news. Although the world dramatized in this work is real, Mr. Ngema's staging eschews realism for a tightly choreographed melding of indigenous ritual, storytelling and musical theater that goes well beyond ''Woza Albert!,'' the glancingly similar earlier piece on which he collaborated.

In ''Asinamali!,'' the cast members, all bald and wearing identical khaki prison costumes, seem to become a single vibrating organism. To call the feat ensemble acting doesn't quite do it justice. Even as the men spin out their individual tales on the undecorated stage, they remain visually connected - a phalanx of humanity that contracts or expands or twists or breaks like a rubber band, as a given scene demands. The oral fabric matches the visual one. Conventional dialogue flows into choral recitations, a cappella songs and sound effects that can alternately suggest the hubbub of contemporary black townships, the characters' deepest cultural roots and the desolate wilderness of the itinerant worker's road.

Some of the images and sequences are unusually upsetting. By miming the act of peering through a cell door's high peephole, the actors evoke the claustrophobia of imprisonment - a feeling that is further heightened when they huddle for warmth while sleeping, their bodies entangled like a pile of rags. In one of several incidents that emphasize the perverse sexual quotient of master-slave relationships, the men undergo an official examination for venereal disease that is every bit the symbolic castration the authorities intend it to be. One is also aware throughout ''Asinamali!'' that the dancing, however strenuous, has a slightly contorted quality: The splayed limbs and hands clearly belong to men who are shackled, whether in jail or not.

Not all of the piece is at the same imaginative level. Some of the incantatory repetitions are tiresome. A contrived scene in which the cast enters the auditorium to search for ''informers'' among the audience does not, as intended, show us what it must be like to live among Judases in black South Africa; we're reminded instead of how experimental theater troupes used to whip up orgies of liberal guilt among New York theatergoers in the 1960's. American viewers must also be warned that ''Asinamali!'' refuses to sacrifice any authenticity for the sake of clarity. Not for nothing are there helpful program notes.

The commitment and intensity of the performance carry one past the troughs, and so, of course, does the compelling, unending history that is retold. It says much about the particular character of this effort that its moving climax is not so much the ritualistic final roll call of famous dissident martyrs (''the wasted people'') but a slightly earlier, more typical passage in which the cast recalls the specific protest that led to the creation of the play. In that scene, the men turn the slogan ''Asinamali!'' into an acrobatic and musical expression of freedom - yet, as soon as they do, the defiant word dies on their lips, their jubilant postures sag, and they become prisoners again. High as ''Asinamali!'' flies as political theater, it never loses touch with the earthly courage and suffering that gave it birth.

New York Times

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