Gail Louw’s The Only White is an intense and moving portrait of a family and friends riven by grief and anger as they come to terms with a loved one’s turn to violence in pursuit of political ideals in apartheid South Africa.
The play tells the true story of John Harris (played by Edmund Sage-green), a political activist in the 1960s who became the only white person executed in apartheid South Africa. John planted a bomb at a train station in Johannesburg that exploded and unintentionally wounded 23 people and killed one. Despite John’s warnings, the authorities did nothing to evacuate commuters, setting off suspicions that the government used the bombing as cover to target activists.
It revisits the period during his incarceration and subsequent execution and takes the audience into the private spaces of those fighting for John’s life and lays bare all their emotional turmoil. The set merges the Hain family (friends of John) living room and John’s prison cell into one space and plays the contrasts of one another. It is particularly profound to watch the family in their living room plan to save their friend, all the while John quietly whimpers (after being tortured) in the background on the concrete floor of his prison cell.
It asks difficult questions about the use of violence as a means to pursue political ideals, how law became arbitrary in the hands of vicious bureaucrats who procured justice through violence and terror.
One can almost feel the helplessness of John’s wife (played by Avena Mansegh) and the Hain family (played by Gil Sidaway, Robert Blackwood, and Emma Wilkinson Wright) as they stand at the mercy of the apartheid government, which now controls John’s fate absolutely. One can almost taste the bitterness of naive idealism ground down by political reality.
Most profoundly though, The Only White, bears witness to one of apartheid’s most insidious effects — the unravelling and breakdown of a human being in an unjust society.
It runs until 22 April.
Review by Jonathan Dockney Photo: Becca Rowson