There is an inherent difficulty with plays that seek to tell a well-known story and thus lack a sense of mystery and element of surprise. Gail Louw’s The Only White at Chelsea Theatre has no, “Will he, won’t he?” suspense, because we know that by the end of the play John Harris (Edward Sage-Green) will have been executed and have become the only white man to be sentenced to death in Apartheid South Africa. There were a 133 others, but they were all either black or mixed race.
An interesting play, that embeds political activism in the lives of ordinary people
Harris was a South African schoolteacher who became Chairman of SANROC (the South African Non Racial Olympic Committee). The organisation’s aim was to have the International Olympic Committee ban South Africa from the 1964 Olympics for having an exclusively white team. He was eventually arrested for his anti-apartheid campaigning and although committed to non-violent protest, he began to consider whether violent actions were acceptable if they involved no physical danger or harm to people. Blowing up telephone lines having proved to be an ineffective strategy in terms of impact.
To the surprise of those who knew him, on 24 July 1964 he left a suitcase with an explosive device in it on a whites-only platform at Johannesburg Park Station. He telephoned a warning to the Johannesburg Railway Police with which the play opens. “This is the African Resistance Movement. We have planted a bomb, It is not our intention to harm anyone. Clear the concourse.”
His message went all the way to the President, and at every level it was decided that nothing should be done. A terrorist bomb that caused suffering suited the government’s agenda. The explosion killed a 77-year-old woman and injured 23 others. Harris was arrested, betrayed during his trial by fellow activist and friend John Lloyd and finally sentenced to death.
The action of the play thereafter is divided between two locations, cleverly staged in a single set design by Malena Arcucci. Along the sitting room wall of the Hain family home in Pretoria, is Harris’s prison cell; rear centre stage surrounded by classic period furniture, the warmth and comfort of the bright orange sofa and rug standing out in stark contrast to the bare grey walls and sleeping surface that Harris sees every day and where Sage-Green's writhing portrays the agonies of Harris’ brutal treatment.
The Hains invited Ann Harris (Avena Mansergh-Wallace) and her baby of a few weeks to move in with them to be nearer her husband. The Hains were members of the anti-apartheid Liberal Party and so the social and political scene is set for an initial discussion about whether Harris would do such a thing. The point at which this questioning becomes acceptance that he did tends to float around rather ambiguously and also includes wider discussions about whether the ends justify the means and how friends and family cope with the realities of life under the oppressive regime. This occupies much of the first act but after the interval the devastating consequences for his his friends and family come to the fore. Combining the didactic, discursive and emotional elements is at times challenging and creates some difficulty in providing a clear focus.
Mansergh-Wallace conveys Ann’s distress and difficulties that must have have confronted many in South Africa at the time about deciding their future. The scenes she has in the prison reveal the frustrations of both husband and wife, but their conversations, rooted in correspondence from the archive, reveal a rather stilted and archaic form of address which seems at odds with their situation. Emma Wilkinson Wright shows Ad Hain to be a proactive, creative and practical woman ready to address issues and deal with them as circumstances demand, while Robert Blackwood, as husband Wal, is more given to ponderous consideration and weighing matters. Gil Sidaway's Peter Hain is in many respects the driving force behind the play’s progression. As the boy who was to become a Labour MP, an ardent campaigner and is currently a member of the House of Lords, it’s fascinating to see Sidaway credibly portray him as a sparkling fourteen-year-old whose questioning prompts much of what we learn. He also seems to mature with the circumstances, as childhood gives way to activism and debate in a foreshadowing of his future.
Director Antony Shrubs weaves his way through the text but is clearly limited by the plays lack of a clear identity; it’s neither an energetic exposition of ‘terrorist’ tactics and rival strategies nor a heart-rending and gripping tale of family tragedy.
It stands as an interesting play, that embeds political activism in the lives of ordinary people and as such is an insight into what many in South Africa must beed forced to confront in those troubled times.