'Groundswell' looks at life in post-apartheid South Africa

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March 9, 2011

By Pam Kragen

Give director Kyle Donnelly a play that she can direct in the round and she’s interested, but add in the elements of fog, alcohol and a very big knife, and she’s hooked.

Ian Bruce’s suspense thriller “Groundswell” has all of the above, so Donnelly said she was happy to be invited to direct the South African drama in its San Diego premiere at the Old Globe this month.

The play is set in a remote, fog-shrouded lodge on the South African coast, where three desperate men have come together to plot a diamond-mining deal, but as they begin to drink and secrets are revealed, things take a dangerous turn. “Groundswell” examines how the end of apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s has affected the lives of the country’s citizens, both black and white.

In “Groundswell,” Thami (the black caretaker of a hotel that’s closed for the winter) and his best friend Johan, an Afrikaan (a white South African native) who serves as the hotel’s handyman, have hatched a get-rich-quick scheme to buy the rights to a diamond mine. As part of the country’s affirmative action efforts, the government is giving preferential treatment to mine-buyers headed by black South Africans, but Thami and Johan don’t have the money to make a bid.

To provide the capital, they invite in Smith, a wealthy older white man who was forced to retire to make way for a younger black candidate at his company. But as the men talk and begin to drink, things take a dark turn.

“This is three guys in a room surrounded by fog, and whenever you get people trapped in a room with a lot of alcohol and a knife, then you’ve got something exciting,” said Donnelly, who heads the MFA acting program at UC San Diego. Donnelly specializes in directing plays in the round, a form that at first terrified her, but now is her favorite way to direct (she directed both “Opus” and “Orson’s Shadow” in the round at the Globe).

“You have to think three-dimensionally all the time,” she said. “It’s more sculptural than pictorial, and it breaks down the barrier between the actor and the audience. With all the barriers broken down like that, you can really see what’s going on and nothing can be hidden.”

While the business deal and the secrets in the men’s past are the focus of “Groundswell,” the political aftermath of apartheid weighs heavily in what the characters bring to the table, Donnelly said. The play’s title was inspired by a line from T.S. Eliot’s 1941 poem “The Dry Salvages,” where Eliot uses the sea as a metaphor for the hopelessness of man’s efforts to control the passage of time.

“I’ve been very interested in what happens to a society after it makes a huge change,” she said. “When we hear about a big change in a country, we always imagine the results will be very positive, and in the long term they usually are, but in the short term, things get worse before they get better.”

A good example is “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” an August Wilson play Donnelly just directed at UCSD, where she’s been on the faculty for 11 years. That play tells the story of several ex-slaves looking for home, identity and belonging in post-Civil War America.

“This is my theme of the season —- the aftershocks,” she said. “I’m fascinated by how far desperate people will go to figure out a way to survive with any kind of dignity. Each character in this play is at the end of his rope. We see them in limbo and they’re on a path toward an end of something. They just don’t know what that ending is.”

The cast for “Groundswell” includes actor Mfundo Morrison as Thami, who just happens to be the great-nephew of South African archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“He didn’t actually grow up in South Africa, his parents were political exiles … but he’s got an amazing connection to the material,” Donnelly said.

Even if the audience doesn’t know the history of apartheid, Donnelly said they’ll still enjoy the play.

“It’s nice to understand the political background, but we’re taking the story in a more metaphorical direction. I don’t want the audience to feel like they’re sitting through a history lesson, and this play allows you the opportunity to focus on the characters as human beings.”

“Groundswell” runs just 90 minutes, a playwriting style that Donnelly said is increasingly popular with both playwrights and playgoers.

“Audiences love them,” she said. “As a director, they’re a challenge to direct. You have to be on the ball. Once the train leaves the station, you can’t control it anymore, so you have to make sure your track is laid out really carefully so it can speed up when it wants to.”

Posted on http://www.nctimes.com



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