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A CurtainUp Review
Nothing But the Truth

I paid for this freedom. They must never forget the little people like me -- who make up the majority that has kept them in power and will still do so for a long time to come. We have dreams, too.
--- Sipho
Warona Seane, John Kani, and Esmeralda Bihl in Nothing But the Truth
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
By the time Sipho Makhaya (John Kani) reveals his "nothing but the truth" secret it won't come as a surprise to most people in the audience. As a matter of fact, nothing that happens during the almost two-hour long intermissionless play holds any real surprises. Its three characters have clearly been created to represent a post-Arpartheid South African viewpoint: the tradition-bound little guy who loyally supported the hard-won destruction of Arpartheid but feels increasingly undervalued; the second generation emigré whose assimilation into a more modern culture (London) is sure to lead to a somewhat rocky first encounter with her South African kin; and the traditionalist's daughter who wants to dip her toes into a more modern and freer life and still honor her father.

If this sounds like a self-consciously structured setup, it is. However, as written by John Kani, one of South Africa's theatrical lions and long time Athol Fugard collaborator, this predictable story manages to gain warmth and dimension. Kani's portrayal of Sipho, a man dignified and soft spoken but seething with years of accumulated resentment, transcends stereotype. Esmeralda Bihl is brash yet likeable as Mandisa, the London raised niece who has brought her father's ashes to be buried in his homeland. Though she does so more slowly and less flamboyantly, Warona Seane eventually animates the role of Thando, the go-between in whom Mandisa also stirs up dormant discontent -- mainly the need to know why her mother deserted her (something her father has refused to discuss) and the yearning to explore life outside the township of New Brighton which custom forbids her doing without her father's sanction.

The container holding Sipho's brother Themba's ashes is the first signal that this isn't going to be a tranquil family reunion since to Sipho a proper burial requires a body and a coffin. Of course Sipho's distress at this to him unorthodox disposal of his brother's remains goes much deeper. Unlike Sipho's quiet and unshowy support of the struggle against Arpartheid, Themba was a charismatic if self-serving leader fled South Africa for England when he was most needed. It is Sipho's recollections of the back story of that long ago self-exile and its bitter harvest in terms of the brothers' thirty-year estrangement that is the backbone of Mr. Kani's story. Though essentially an intimate family story, Nothing But the Truth examines the ordinary South African's place in the hard-earned free society. The problems and disappointments that inevitably accompany the end of a long struggle are reflected in Sipho's coming to terms with a lifetime of having "things taken from him." Besides having to deal with the wounds opened by his brother's death, he must also accept the bitter pill of not getting the chief librarian's job he feels he has earned through many years of service and support of the freedom struggle.

In the days between Mandisa's arrival and the funeral, the litany of remembered losses pile up -- the most heart-wrenching being the death of his son (a stand-in for Kani's poet brother to whom this play is dedicated) and the disappearance of the wife he has never stopped loving. As Sipho becomes increasingly morose, the relationship between the two cousins deepens and brings additional conflict as Mandisa, a budding fashion designer, urges Thanda to visit the fashion scene in Johannesburg and London with her.

Janice Honeyman's unobtrusive direction plays to the small moments-large feelings sensibility of the script. Except for an explosive climactic monologue from Sipho, the journey from gradually revealed heartaches to redemptive acceptance, this is a quiet play brought to authentic life in the book and picture cluttered cinder block house Sarah Roberts has created for the Makhaya family. That house, the costumes (also by Roberts) put us into Port Elizabeth, South Africa circa 2000-- when the soft-spoken, sixty-three-year-old Sipho looks on a life that has run much of its course and cries out "I want everything back" he is an Everyman who could be living anywhere.

For a review of Mr. Kahni's most recent appearance in his most famous collaboration with Athol Fugard, see The Island, reviewed in London and at BAM.

Written by John Kani
Directed by Janice Honeyman;
Cast: John Kani (Sipho Makhaya), Warona Seane (Thando Makhaya) and Esmeralda Bihl (Mandisa MacKay).
Set and Costume Design: Sarah Roberts
Lighting Design: Mannie Manim
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes without intermission
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St. 212/239-6200 or
Tuesday-Saturday @8PM, Wednesday & Saturday @2PM, Sunday @3PM; 11/15/03 to 1/18/04; opening 12/07/03.
Tickets: $60
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 10th matinee performance

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