Mosaic Theatre's "Groundswell" Explores South African White Guilt and Entitlement

It takes a big man to see two sides in a story — especially one about apartheid, and especially if you lived it. And if you're a white fellow, like playwright Ian Bruce, it takes a certain roguish temperament to cast a knife-swinging, booze-swilling honky killer like Johan (Gregg Weiner) as the putative hero of that story. But that's what Bruce has done. A South African with a right to be nervous about such things, Bruce went so far as to cast that honky as — get this — the self-appointed defender of black people. Yet Bruce never treats Johan like a joke. In Groundswell, the usual rules of African narratives starring white people are chucked altogether. Because Bruce, no matter how it seems at first, is not really interested in white versus black or in the tension between the colonist and the colonized. Bruce is chasing something less local, more complex.

Groundswell is set during a single night at a lodge in an out-of-the-way corner of coastal South Africa. Johan is the lodge's unofficial maintenance man, fixing the occasional fuse box in exchange for the rent of a small servant's shack off the garden. During the day, he dives for gems. It's a tricky business, one for which Johan is increasingly unsuited. Too many fast ascents have left him with a pernicious case of the bends, and his left arm has been crippled by the buildup of nitrogen bubbles in his joints.

Johan's best friend is Thami (Marckenson Charles), the lodge's gardener, who takes over as manager when the owners are out of town, as they are now. In the play's first scene, Thami is decked out in a crisp chef's outfit, penning a letter to his faraway wife and children. Soon he will prepare dinner for the lodge's lone guest.

Weiner, Charles: Yelling as drama.
George Schaivone
Weiner, Charles: Yelling as drama.

Johan arrives first, fresh from searching the beach for diamonds. "The first diamond ever found in South Africa was on a beach," he later explains. Johan and Thami, we learn, share an extraordinary bond despite their different hues. When they met, Thami rendered Johan a great moral service, and now Johan is determined to get the both of them rich. They become misty-eyed discussing the diamond-mining concessions now being offered to the country's working classes and of the farm that a good haul from such a concession might buy.

But Johan's faith is cracking. His diving days are over, or nearly so, and there is no ready source for the funds needed to buy the mining concession. Which is why this otherwise decent fellow has taken a decidedly indecent interest in the car of the lodge's guest. It's a nice car, and it happens to be unlocked. Inside is evidence of its owners' business. He is, or was, an investor. And he's loaded.

The guest, Smith (Peter Haig), is cultured, friendly, and inoffensive; employing his love of poetry and wine in a losing battle with grief. His wife is dead, and he has lost his position with a company he loves. Now he drives around South Africa, trying to figure out what to do with himself and his money.

Well, Johan has a few suggestions. He and Thami invite themselves to Smith's table and proceed to give one of the most convincing sales pitches you'll ever hear. At this moment, perhaps 25 minutes into the play, Groundswell simultaneously takes off and begins to disintegrate.

Yelling is a mode of dramatic expression that fast wears out its currency. Well before the end of the second scene — which is also the end of the play — volume fatigue sets in, and it's hard not to wish the involved parties would calm the hell down. Thami's play-ending revelation feels both too convenient and utterly false, and it does a disservice to Charles' sensitive, understated performance so far.

But Bruce's one false step shouldn't diminish his otherwise powerful second scene, nor the complicated treatment it is receiving at Mosaic Theatre. That scene weaves danger and sweetness, the political and the personal, friendship and hatred into a darkly fascinating medley that could terminate as easily with the spilling of blood as with the fulfillment of dreams. The argument at its core is about entitlement — who owes what and to whom? The more tangible realities of damnation and redemption are Groundswell's true subjects, and the image with which it leaves us is far from political.

 
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