‘I’ve died many times in this life, but I’m still alive. I’m a dead man walking,” says Duma Kumalo, former death row inmate, starring in He Left Quietly. The drama, written with director Yael Farber, is about Duma. It is an autobiographical theatre piece, which takes the former prisoner down memory lane.
Twelve years ago, Duma sternly stared death in the face. The gallows were beckoning and the noose was dangling in front of him. He was one of the Sharpeville Six sentenced to death in December 1985, and reprieved just 15 hours before they were due to be hanged. Duma was convicted of the murder of a councillor from the Vaal Triangle township during the 1984 uprising over the municipal rates boycott.
“All these things are still fresh in my mind. It’s like it happened yesterday. Sometimes it becomes quite overwhelming,” he said.
“When you’re on death row, with your friends being hanged around you, you become empty. The last straw was when my dad came to see me for the last time. He asked for my remains, but they refused,” he said.
As I discovered during the interview, it isn’t easy for Duma to break with his past. “I’m no longer in prison, but I’m not free. When you step out of prison, you think everything will be fine, but it only gets worse,” he said.
Duma is a national project co-ordinator for the Khulumani Support Group, a body which offers support to apartheid victims. He has survived to recount his poignant experiences at death’s door. Duma said telling his story wasn’t automatically cathartic.
“When you tell your story, you don’t necessarily get healed. But it is better if you tell your story so that other people will know.”
He’s working hard to put his past behind him. “I can’t undo time. But, perhaps, I can pick up the pieces. Maybe I can help other people,” he said.
He Left Quietly was commissioned by the Berlin House of World Cultures with additional funding from the Spoornet State Theatre and the 2002 National Arts Festival. The play opens in Pretoria on Tuesday night.
Adrienne Sichel asked Yael some questions:
Q: This is the third intensive theatre biography you’ve worked on. First the acclaimed Woman in Waiting with Thembi Mtshali and then Amajuba, the searing apartheid autobiographies of actors from the North West Drama Company. How different is this play in terms of the creative process?
A: I’m developing a way of working which is a great joy to me – intensive interviews and discussions.
I’ve known Bra Duma for three years. We had originally decided to write a book together, so I had amassed a lot of information. We’ve only had five-and-a-half weeks (in the rehearsal room). I spent the first two weeks speaking to him, reiterating details. I made the addition of the third performer recently because one has to take these huge risks with this kind of work. One has to put things in the mix and see what is missing. It is literally painting as you go. There is no previous pencil sketch. You build it moment by moment.
Q: This third character, played by Yana Sakelaris, was a necessary mechanism?
A:Absolutely. You know, one of the most powerful things for me in our theatre at the moment is that there are so many immensely powerful and painful stories, but we have to find a new ways to tell them. The protest theatre of the 1980s was so successful and dominating. I don’t want to break from that aesthetic, but just in the act of listening we have to find a way to bring new ears to the stories.
Bra Duma has an immense power just in his presence, in his simplicity, humility and humanity when he tells his story. I was hoping to put that on a stage and allow it have an effect on the audience.
But what this story is about is about is a young woman who, in the act of listening to the story, is able to understand how to integrate grief and pain into life through someone like Bra Duma. So the story is totally centred around him and his experiences. But I wanted to go beyond that because he goes beyond that. He actually has a way of permeating the process that one who is hearing the story can go through it.
Q: There are many facets in this play since the main character is mirrored by a younger version of himself, played by Lebohang Elephant. Is this a healing, or a purging process?
A: You would have to ask Bra Duma that. There’s a line in the play that says: “Very few people have the courage to come see what a man does when he is about to die. The fact is very few men have the courage to tell us what a man does when he is about to die.”
The whole cast went to Pretoria and visited the gallows. It was the first time Bra Duma had walked the 52 steps, which we walked together, and went into that room, which is now painted this bizarre colour with stencilled moons on the wall. The trap door is boarded up. The room below where they used to wash the bodies after the hanging is now full of gym equipment.
Bra Duma has a mission, some people would call it survivor guilt, some would call it survivor responsibility. He feels he is responsible for speaking for all of those who died. I find him a deeply inspiring person to engage with.
Q: How did you meet?
A:It was during the question time after The Story I Am About to Tell, which he performed in. I asked how could white people engage in reconciliation. He replied you can help me write my story. Actually the answer was people could help financially, but as an artist that was not possible for me. After we had gone into the process he said: “You are money in a different way.” I don’t want to dress this as anything except that I am a theatremaker. I love trying to honour stories I feel deeply connected to.
Q: But why another play to tell his story. And why you?
A: We couldn’t find the commitment with our schedules to sit down and write the book. He lived the story and nearly died the story. No one can own it but him. Bra Duma chooses people. It’s not a coincidence that Harriet Gavshon made a most beautiful documentary about him called Facing Life, Facing Death. It’s not just about Bra Duma but all the men on death row with him and we are giving life to all those characters.
We are fleshing out the ghosts and showing how Bra Duma brings light to people who encounter him. You think you’re telling his story and he ends engaging with your story. That’s what has happened. The play is ultimately about the colliding of lives and how we impact on each other. He’s an extraordinary man and he deserves as much air time as possible.