Within the UK, apartheid South Africa (the institutionally racist segregation system between 1948-1994), and the struggle to destroy it, is usually shown through the prism of Nelson Mandela’s life. While Mandela’s story is incredibly inspiring, it doesn’t allow for the personal impact apartheid had on lesser known individuals.
This is where Maya Pillay’s new play, Colour Is Too Sweet comes in. It portrays the life of three women in the weeks before the Soweto Uprising – where up to 700 people died after black school children led a series of protests and demonstrations.
The three women, Amahle (Maya Pillay), Celia (Ola Forman) and Enny (Rudzani K Moleya) derive from different socio-economic backgrounds but are united in their fight for freedom. All members of the African National Congress (ANC), a non violent apartheid opposition group, we watch as they tussle to find their partners who have been imprisoned.
Through the use of projected news reels, emotive conversations and monologues as well as interactions with racists police officers and a British journalist, the story is told via a compelling narrative. Genuine emotions are felt for these characters and the King’s Head Theatre stage is used to full effect.
Rudanzi K Moleya is the stand out performer, flicking between the hopeful optimist and broken realist with ease; her character is dense and heartfelt. Pillay and Forman are not far behind as both women show the pain and sorrow of these characters as we wish for the justice they so rightly sought.
The three women are finely supported by three men, Bobby (Trevor Kaneswaran), Alfie (Nari Blair-Mangat) and Freddie/Officer (Angus Cooper). Cooper is the most compelling in both his roles, the most shocking moment of the night being when he spits on Forman for requesting to leave some essentials for her partner.
The performers are excellent individually, yet when they come together through their harmonies they are most effective. Using their collective voices as the soundtrack, their acapella singing metaphorically represents their struggle marvellously. When the first person starts to sing there is a small glimmer of hope, then as they are joined by their peers and they all come together, it develops into a culmination of power and possibility until the seemingly unattainable is finally achieved.
South Africa finally removed apartheid in 1994, yet as Pillay declares in an emotional closing monologue: when will the British learn? Their rule is not there to be superior, or to be dictated on other regions, nor should they come in and offer solutions to fix problems of their own making. And, while Britain didn’t implement the evils of apartheid, there’s no denying the inherent institutional racism built into society.
It is for reasons such as this that plays opening up these conversations are so important. Not only do they shed a light on a time in history somewhat neglected in the western world, they also show us how easy it is to slip back in to these evils. Colour Is Too Sweet is a fine play, one Maya Pillay and director Layla Madanat should be very proud of.
Colour Is Too Sweet played until 9 July. For more information, visit the King’s Head Theatre website.