Review: When swallows cry

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Mercy Kannemeyer, postgraduate student from Stellenbosch University, reviews Mike van Graan’s When swallows cry.

When swallows cry, written by Mike van Graan and directed by Lesedi Job, was commissioned by Ibsen International and first produced by the Market Theatre in 2017. The play, starring Mbulelo Grootboom, Martin Kintu and Kai Luke Brummer, deals with issues such as the ongoing refugee crisis, immigration and man’s need to survive in the most difficult situations. Three stories are told in the play and the actors all play different parts in each, and they are also set in different locations. In the three different locations, a story of migration or immigration is told that connects, or tries to connect, with that location’s way of dealing with the issue of refugees. The three locations are the United States of America, Australia and northern Africa. Many references are made to Boko Haram, the militant organisation that has, since the early 2000s, been known for its radical and violent actions that have left millions of people displaced.

In the writer’s note in the programme, Van Graan writes:

When swallows cry is a trilogy of playlets that explores the inequities and layered complexities of contemporary global mobility, particularly from African perspectives. Once forced to “migrate” as slaves, Africans are now among the world’s least attractive migrants in the wealthy economies of the world, many built – not insubstantially – on African labour and mineral resources.

The motivation for the play is clear, and this can be a very important piece of theatre: the refugee crisis is, sadly, an ongoing one, and in some wealthy parts of the world, like Trump’s America, refugees – or people fleeing to have better lives – are not welcome. This is an extremely complicated situation, and perhaps not one to be covered in this short review.

As a young student busy with my master’s degree in drama and theatre studies, and also as someone with an immense interest in creating theatre and writing about theatre, I most certainly do not have an easy job in having to review a production by Mike van Graan. Van Graan is someone whom I have respect for – especially for his work that has transcended cultures and difficult conversations and made meaningful impact for transformation in art and through art; but, I would be neglecting my task if I backed out of asking the questions I had after watching When swallows cry.

Van Graan writes (in his writer’s note) about how the refugee crisis has immersed many continents, and, in that way, this piece of theatre will be used as a catalyst for further discussion and aid in understanding what leads to mankind’s urge for better lives.

I understand the need and importance of laughter in society, and that laughter can aid in making situations better. However, I wondered why some scenes were handled so lightly. There was a lot of uncomfortable laughter and, perhaps, laughter where you as an audience member recognise yourself; still, it felt as if some action parts were set up to be funny instead of highlighting the serious issues the play purports to address. At the risk of giving too much of the plot away, all I can say is that the play had a lot of violence and guns, and that it almost did not feel like I was watching theatre, but rather a movie.

Another thing that I was wondering about was the television screens that hung from the roof, which portrayed what seemed like various elements (fire, water, wind, earth, I’m guessing), and (again) at the risk of forming a superficial idea of the meaning of these projections, I am wondering why they were used.

The militants in Africa (played by Grootboom and Kintu – and this is not critique on their performance, but rather on their script) were, at some stages, shown in a comedic manner, so that they did not come across as scary as Boko Haram would, for instance. But, perhaps this was the intention? To point out our human ridiculousness?

The play was staged effectively (in a tight space that conveyed a claustrophobic feeling), and the actors had great energy throughout the production. I look forward to witnessing further discussion and seeing the way in which When swallows cry becomes a catalyst for debates surrounding migration.

  • The play is still on until 24 February at the Baxter Theatre.
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