It feels good to be getting into the theatre again. It’d been a long time (unless I’m forgetting something…) since I’d seen a theatre production, and I really do miss my friendship & involvement with the Theatre department at UH.
Blue, Black, and White is an original play by Donald Molosi, a graduate student here at UCSB, who, now that I look him up online, is apparently a very prominent rising star among young artists from Botswana. I won’t bother sharing a list of his awards and accomplishments here, but they’re easy to find online. The play tells the story of Sir Seretse Khama (1921-1980), first president of independent Botswana. He is known not only for leading the country to independence (in 1966), and to relative prosperity, but also for his then (and still?) extremely controversial marriage to a white woman, Ruth Williams, in 1948, at a time when the formal policies of apartheid were first getting underway in South Africa, and when segregation and the racial attitudes underlying it was very much the norm throughout much of the Western world and its colonies. The play suggests that interracial mixing and equality was much more common, or stronger, in Bechuanaland even before independence than in many other parts of southern Africa, and that after independence, under Sir Seretse, it became even more tolerant (especially in comparison to neighboring South Africa, infamous for its formal Apartheid policies). If this is true, it’s really remarkable.
Tonight’s performance, directed by Haddy Kreie and starring a cast of all UCSB undergraduates, was an ensemble version of the play, previously performed as a one-man show by Molosi himself; the play is still a work in progress, but even as is, it’s really quite well-done, nuanced, multi-layered, powerful and meaningful.
The play is told through multiple layers of storytelling, and each actor plays multiple parts. It is a story of a classroom in Botswana, where the teacher is teaching her students about Sir Seretse Khama; as part of her lessons, she and the students dress up and play parts and act out key moments and events in the life of Sir Seretse. But then, within that “role playing,” there are also sections where Lady Ruth Khama, sitting with some of the Ba-Tswana women, answers their questions and tells them stories, for example, about how she and Sir Seretse met. It is easy to forget sometimes that a given scene is meant to be a memory, a story being told, or that it’s supposed to be the schoolchildren playing parts. But that’s good – all the scenes feel real.
As each actor takes on multiple roles, changing gender and race as well, and often putting on accents, there comes the obvious, unavoidable question of race in the casting. I’d rather not say too much, because it is a very touchy subject, and anything said about it must be phrased very carefully. My apologies if I am not careful enough. But, as the cast, director, and playwright explained, this works for them on multiple levels. One, colorblind casting helps embody the interracial, anti-segregation message of the play. Two, the diverse background of the actors (white, Asian-American, Latina, etc.), even as they play Black Africans, helps, perhaps, subconsciously, highlight the ethnic differences within Botswana – in American discourse, we may see “Black” as a single group, just as we all too often also gloss over the great ethnic & cultural diversity within “white” identity, but, in Botswana, as in most African countries (and elsewhere in the world), there is a strong sense of ethnic, cultural, tribal differences, e.g. between BaTswana, BaKalanga, and BaSarwa (‘ba’ being a prefix in Setswana denoting a people; ‘se’, similarly, is a prefix denoting a language. Thus BaTswana means “the Tswana people,” Setswana, “the Tswana language,” and Botswana, “the Tswana country.” I learned these things today.). Finally, that for the actors, taking on all these different roles helped them to understand and to embody the different racial/ethnic/cultural identities in the story, and in the racial/political issues the play addresses. I suppose in the end, if it’s alright with the great, award-winning Batswana playwright Donald Molosi, who am I to say otherwise?
Speaking of “tribes” or ethnic identities, I thought it very interesting, and valuable, the way that Molosi introduces some criticism into his own narrative, acknowledging the choices he is making, and the presence of alternative narratives. The story he tells is a romantic and nationalistic one, emphasizing the Batswana people and Sir Seretse in particular, elevating him as an individual, as a founding father. The playwright shows his awareness and recognition of the problematic nature of this narrative by having one character, one of the schoolchildren, Frank, frequently ask questions such as “why do we learn only about Sir Seretse? Aren’t there other important people whose stories deserve to be told too?” Frank also says at one point “my uncle says we aren’t to use the word ‘tribe’.” I thought these interjections among the most valuable and powerful critical elements in the play. It is a play about recovering one’s history, one’s identity, and telling the story of one’s own people, of one’s own country. But, even while doing so, it is important to recognize that an alternative story, a counter-narrative, can also be dominating, can also be silencing of other voices, and can also perpetuate discourses (such as the use of the word ‘tribe’, or not, and what connotations it has within your culture, and your own national narrative). The teacher attacks Frank each time, yelling at him and punishing him for challenging her narrative, her curriculum. This kind of forcible enforcement of the curriculum takes place in classrooms all around the world.
Donald says that the public school curriculum in Botswana remains very much a colonial curriculum. It teaches a version of history that is heavily Eurocentric, including, he mentioned, the Russian tsars and the German unification of the 19th century, but nothing, incredibly, about Botswana’s own history. This, I was very surprised by. Not that I know anything much at all about African history, but while places like Hawaii and Okinawa still struggle (to varying degrees) to be allowed to teach their own histories, rather than, or in dialogue with, the national narrative, I had always assumed that independent countries like Botswana – especially countries so newly independent, with such a history of colonization – would have already done away with the colonial curriculum, and might in fact have, arguably, gone too far the other way. How many countries in the world teach the hagiography of their national founder above all else, enshrining him? There are the stories we tell ourselves (and our children) about Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, and there are the stories told about Mao Zedong and about Kim Il-Sung. What stories are told about Kemal Ataturk or Jomo Kenyatta? That Botswana not only does not idolize Sir Seretse in this way, but does not even tell his story – or that of Botswana’s history at all, so we are told – is really surprising. After my engagement with Hawaiian and Okinawan issues in various venues during my time at UH, I did not have to be told, but Donald made it all the more clear, speaking quite explicitly during the talk-back after the show, about the discursive impact on one’s identity, one’s self-worth, one’s worldview, to be taught to associate history with the Other – that only the Other possesses History, and that the Botswanan Self does not possess History (see Edward Said, classic element of Orientalist attitudes of the static, non-developing, ahistorical non-Western Other), or does not possess a History worth knowing, remembering, or retelling. This makes Molosi’s telling of this story all the more important.
As always with these sorts of things, I find that I have a handful of different points or themes I want to touch on, but not necessarily a particularly organized way to bring them up, to lead from one another, or to lead into any kind of conclusion. While the play is less polished than some I have seen in Hawaii – and that’s perfectly okay, as it is, after all, a lab theatre student production, and still a work-in-progress – I think that in some ways, it actually works better than some of the more professional pieces I’ve seen on issues of identity, race, nationalism. Molosi’s play is uplifting and heartening, and does not attack the audience for their beliefs or attitudes, but rather educates them, the key thematic points being well-woven into the story, into the characters, without banging anyone over the head with them, and without any of the characters being one-dimensional stereotypes.
This issue of recovering history is a central one for many indigenous peoples and others struggling with post-colonial situations. I can see, I would love to see, a similar story told for Hawaii, or for other peoples, recovering the history and telling a story that people should be proud of, while at the same time, not really attacking another people, and, being self-critical. Those interjections by Frank were a small part of the entire play, but they were crucial in helping the play acknowledge and portray multiple viewpoints, the subjectivity of any and all versions of history, and the political motivations or biases behind any and every version of history. It is of great importance, of course, that histories be recovered, and that peoples learn stories about their history, and the great figures in their history of whom they can be proud. But it is all too easy to get caught up in myths, to be led to think that questioning the narrative is a betrayal of one’s identity, of one’s community, or that elders and practitioners of the traditional arts are the ultimate authorities on truth. I would love to see a play that tells the story of King Kalakaua or Queen Liliuokalani, whose stories absolutely deserve to be told, but which might contain just a few lines of “But, teacher, what about Kamehameha and Kaahumanu? Aren’t they important too?” or “But, teacher, what about the ali’i adopting Christianity? Isn’t that a betrayal of our gods, of our indigenous culture?” and being shouted down by the teacher who only wants the one version of the narrative to be told and retold. By including this sort of complexity and self-criticism in his play, Molosi makes this work so much more powerful, meaningful, and impactful.
As much as I may miss the more regular opportunities for engagement with Asia-Pacific-American issues in Hawaii, it was a most welcome pleasure tonight to get to learn something about Botswana, to see these same issues, or similar issues, in a very different context. My warmest thanks and congratulations to Donald, Haddy, cast and crew!