COLD CASE: REVISITING DULCIE SEPTEMBER. Directed by Basil Appollis, with Denise Newman. At Alexander Upstairs Theatre, until April 29
Review: THERESA SMITH
If ever there was a murder case that has gone cold, it is that of Dulcie September, the ANC activist who was assassinated in Paris in 1988.
Almost three decades later no one has any definitive answers and this play does not try to steer you in particular direction. Instead it tries to humanise a woman doomed to slowly become a byword for how political secrets become conspiracy theories.
The tiny Alexander Upstairs theatre is filled with cardboard boxes around which Denise Newman wends her way as she portrays Dulcie September and some of the people who knew her.
At times she directly addresses the audience as September, talking about her death but more often talking about how she lived.
Formless chaos made neat by reordering of events into lines of text
We meet the defiant teenager who became a teacher committed to overcoming racial division and forging unity among students from different backgrounds. We learn how she became involved in various organisations, stood trial and ended up in exile in Paris.
Early on the character talks about how the formless chaos of her existence is made neat by the reordering of events into neat lines of text, how her life is now contained in a few lines in forgotten reports in boxes. The play tries to enliven those lines of text and in many ways it succeeds.
Newman raises a giggle every time the audience empathises with a nostalgic memory of playing a particular game, a sigh of recognition every time she mentions the names of people she interacted with.
On a meta level the play serves as a sharp reminder that there are so many Coloured activists who got involved in The Struggle in very meaningful ways, who we know nothing about and who are being written right out of history because, like September, they officially exist only in a few lines in forgotten files. It is emboldening therefore to meet on stage an ordinary woman who you recognise as such, but who lived her life as she wanted to and had a positive influence on so many because of her conviction.
It hits home
We remember the person we are getting to know came to a violent end, but Newman does succeed in making September a real enough person to the audience that when we see the aftermath of her death, it hits home.
But, on the downside, probably because the actress is returning to this particular stage performance after a long hiatus, it is still a performance. Strangely enough, Newman still stumbles over her lines a few times, an odd blip for such a seasoned performer.
The prose has a hypnotic lyricism to it, so you would struggle to recognise the different characters if Newman didn’t change her accent and affect particular mannerisms when changing characters. Here the lighting could be much more effective to help delineate the characters, but too much diffuse light in the room negates any attempts at creating different settings.
The video footage of Paris circa 1988, which the drama works up to, gets you asking “but what really happened” with bitter hindsight; but the odd way it is clipped and truncated makes for an abrupt return to reality.
What: Cold Case: Revisiting Dulcie September
Where: Alexander Bar & Café, 76 Strand St, Cape Town
When: Until Sat, 29 April, 2017
Info: 021 300 1652
Note: Under 18s must be with a parent/guardian
Social media: facebook.com/AlexanderBarCT Twitter: @AlexanderBarCT
For more from Theresa Smith: theresathewordsmith.wordpress.com