Imagining Unwritten Histories: Gregory Maqoma Oct 26, 2013

by Ruth Wikler-Luker

As a child growing up in the American Midwest in the 1980s, I remember learning about the fight against apartheid in South Africa, mainly by watching powerful movies like Biko and A World Apart. The images and stories from those films—as well as the news stories about Nelson Mandela in particular, and his extraordinary heroism—are still fresh in my memory.


But there are other South African heroes whom I have never seen represented, and whose individual identities and experiences I have never attempted to imagine: the 18th-century fighters who resisted the original British colonial invasion.


Last night at On the Boards, that changed. In an astounding act of time-collapsing choreographic magic, the powerful and precise choreographer and dancer Gregory Maqoma channeled one such hero for us: his own ancestor, the Xhosa Chief Maqoma, who bravely resisted the British invasion only to die a prisoner on Robben Island.


Guided by a chorus of singing spirits (actually the amazing Johannesburg-based a capella vocal quartet Complete, who found Maqoma through a connection with the legendary Hugh Masakela and constitute a major performative component of this production), in his piece Exit/Exist Gregory Maqoma transformed himself from a contemporary man in a suit into the legendary pre-colonial Xhosa Chief. Dressed in cowhide to invoke the power of cattle ownership as a signal of Xhosa strength, Maqoma’s invocation of Chief Maqoma journeyed from innocence to war to defeat before our eyes, offering us emotional access to a historical perspective that has otherwise been erased into absence.


Seattle Theatre Group and On the Boards joined forces to bring us this extraordinary glimpse into an unwritten past through contemporary South African dance theatre, and it is not to be missed. Hurry to the last show, on Sunday night 10/27/13 at 8pm.