Zamile Gantana takes a crate, sits in the middle of the stage, and gives a straightforward but lyrical explanation of what happened to the SS Mendi. In 1917, a total of 823 South African men boarded the ship to aid the British war effort; a month later, more than 600 of them drowned after a collision. “This is our lament for the souls of the dead, to bring them peace,” Gantana says. From this opening scene, the South African theatre company Isango Ensemble transfigure the idea of lament, turning grief into something poignantly beautiful, darkly funny and, at times, sharply angry.
The script follows a dozen or so men on the ship including an outspoken priest, a teenager told his presence brings bad luck, a mixed-race recruit and a white officer. Adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan alongside the 14-strong ensemble, the play shows the racist indignities the men faced on board before their tragic deaths.
Mark Dornford-May’s direction, combined with Lungelo Ngamlana’s choreography and Mandisi Dyantyis’ musical direction, is extraordinary. Using few instruments and scant props, the world around the Mendi, from train journeys to bird sounds, is realised using movement, music and voice work.
There are many brilliant moments, dark humour often at their core. Performers break the fourth wall to joke about fog machines or explain tribal circumcision culture. The Blue Peter theme tune is played on a marimba. As characters read contracts in their native languages, the cacophony of difference segues into God Save the King. We are reminded that Africa is a vast continent with a variety of cultures and tribes, forced together under the banner of Empire.
The ship itself is anthropomorphised into a beaming Nolubabalo Mdayi, singing merrily about her size before she watches over the crew like a happy mother, looking displeased when they fight. When the SS Mendi finally sinks she crumples into herself. She wails and struggles, before a man who we know survives the sinking comes to help her let go. It’s a visceral moment, and Mdayi, like the rest of the ensemble, gives an incredible performance.
This is a stunning play: an hour and a half of music, song and first-rate storytelling. “Can you get a seat in the theatre where the white man sits?” one character asks early on. The souls of the SS Mendi might not have been able to sit alongside the audience, but with this play, their story speaks when they cannot.