WHEN SWALLOWS CRY. Written by Mike van Graan. Directed by Lesedi Job. With Mbulelo Grootboom, Martin Kintu and Kai Luke Brummer. Set design: Nadya Cohen. Lighting design: Mandla Mtshali. Audio Visual: Jurgen Meekel. Baxter Theatre.

Pictures: Bronwyn Lloyd

KAREN RUTTER reviews

Mike van Graan’s new work When Swallows Cry is proof of the power of incubation and collaboration. Some nine months in the making, as part of a process involving theatre practitioners from Asia, Europe, America and Africa, the play has had the benefit of both development time and international input. And it’s amazing what can come of this – in the right hands, of course.

'When Swallows Cry'

Van Graan was part of a group of eight playwrights from around the world who were commissioned by the Norwegian Theatre Company Ibsen International to produce new works on the theme of migration and refugees. He has chosen a trilogy format to look at global mobility – or the lack thereof – from African perspectives. As Van Graan writes in his programme notes: “Once forced to ‘migrate’ as slaves, Africans are now among the world’s least attractive migrants in the wealthy economies of the world, many built … on African labour and mineral resources.”

Using this angle as a springboard, three scenarios are quickly launched into the performance arena. In the first, a Canadian is kidnapped by members of an African militia. In the second, two Zimbabwean refugees are held in a detention centre in Australia. And in the third, a Somali traveller to North America is interrogated by immigration officials.

The narrative moves at a swift, action-styled pace – for all Van Graan’s gift with words, this is as much a physical as a thinky piece – as the three vignettes unfold. And with them, all the disparities of modern migration and movement patterns.

The past, the present and the personal

Martin Kintu and Mbulelo Grootboom are initially seen as a single menacing front as the production starts, a commander and his soldier in charge of a captured Canadian aid worker (Kai Luke Brummer).  But as this segment unfolds, all three men reveal back stories that detail separate motivations. They are inextricably linked through both the past and the present – but how this plays out offers surprises.

In the middle section, two Zimbabweans (Kintu and Grootboom) who have fled their country in search of better opportunities and have landed up in Australia, face the almost inexplicable racist wrath of an Australian official (Brummer). Their desperate journey from a situation with few prospects to a potential refuge is explained, and should induce sympathy  – but it is when the Australian reveals his own journey that his hatred makes sense.

'When Swallows Cry'

Lastly, a Muslim Somali man (Kintu) is hauled aside by two American immigration officials (Brummer and Grootboom), despite having the correct visa. The presence of his Koran and his “suspicious” surname are reason enough for the officials to consider blocking his entry; when he explains his reasons for wanting to leave Somali (and South Africa), this just provokes further dismissal.

Heart-rending situations

These are traumatic, desperate, heart-rending situations – and they are happening all the time. Van Graan has successfully funnelled an area of huge complexity into an accessible 80 minutes that is both sobering and inspiring theatre.

Director Lesedi Job pulls it all together with a deft hand that controls the physical, the emotional and the intellectual pieces of this production. Her balanced approach shows in the dynamics of the play. As for the actors – all three are completely engaging in their respective roles, slipping fluidly from oppressor to oppressed, from victor to victim, from privileged to poor. (They may just want to watch their accents, however – these could do with a bit of work.) But ultimately they turn in remarkable performances, eye catching and memorable, and deeply moving.

When Swallows Cry is, despite its distressing theme, a completely engrossing and yes, entertaining production. And it should be seen in more African countries. For now, catch it at the Baxter while you can.

What: When Swallows Cry

Where and when: Baxter Theatre from 31 January to 8 February 2018

Book: Webtickets

WS