Cadre gives human form to the brutal mechanics of apartheid

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      By Omphile Molusi. Directed by Omphile Molusi, in collaboration with Rick Boynton. Produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Richard Jordan Productions, in association with the Market Theatre of Johannesburg. Presented by the Cultch. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Tuesday, February 24. Continues until March 8

      Short, elemental, and full of impact, Cadre is like a postcard from hell.

      In Cadre, playwright and director Omphile Molusi plays a South African guy named Gregory, who was a revolutionary in the anti-apartheid struggle. Gregory starts his narration in 2015: “I thought that I would be free. But now I’m still struggling.…How do I make you understand?” Then he flips back to 1965: galvanized, in part, by witnessing the police murder of his politically active brother, Gregory joins the Pan Africanist Conference, an underground black-nationalist movement that has since become a political party.

      Molusi’s script starts off somewhat weakly, but gains undeniable strength. The early scenes, which are mostly short, feel scattered and—as in agitprop performances or not-great children’s theatre—they also feel reductive and illustrative. The storytelling relies on convenient coincidence: kicked out of the house, Gregory quickly finds his brother, for instance, just moments before that brother is gunned down. Adults are also called upon to play kids at this point in the story, and here, the two guys in the cast, Molusi and Fezile Mpela, overdo it a bit.

      But when Gregory, having been imprisoned for 11 years, returns to the struggle, he becomes an informant within the state police force. This is when Cadre finds its antagonist, a white officer named Botha—and its power. Within the police station, we see the brutal mechanics of apartheid—the intimidation, torture, and murder. And when Gregory is forced to make unbearable choices, which I won’t give away, it becomes sickeningly clear why he is still scarred decades later.

      Cadre hits home because it gives human form to the sacrifices that contributed not just to the end of apartheid, but also to compromised political outcomes in the longer term. (The young Gregory says, “There will be no poverty. The land will provide.”) Cadre also hits home because it’s so relevant in Canada. Furious, Gregory shouts at his white oppressors: “This is not your land!”

      Overall, the directorial vision of Molusi and collaborator Rick Boynton is powerful—especially in sequences of pure sound and movement. All three cast members sing as easily as speaking: Lillian Tshabalala, who also acts as musical director, joins Molusi and Mpela. Scott Davis’s set is a triumph of the “poor theatre” aesthetic: hung from twine, bolts of fabric look like laundry, but they also create rooms and provide warm surfaces for shadow play. The lighting design by Jesse Klug and Greg Hofmann ratchets up the beauty.

      All three actors offer committed, elemental performances. I particularly enjoyed the subtlety and simplicity of Tshabalala’s work. At first, when she appeared as an innocent, open-faced girl, and then as Gregory’s tense mother, I thought that there were two women in the cast.

      Cadre is tough. It’s also also skilled and important. It's a postcard we should be grateful to receive.