Art as a weapon against bru­tal­ity

CityPress - - News - PHUM­LANI SITHEBE LANGA phum­lani.sithebe@city­press.co.za

What should have been a stan­dard Breathal­yser test turned into a night­mare that would haunt young ac­tor and play­wright Mongi Mthombeni for years – un­til he turned his ex­pe­ri­ence into a play.

“I was picked up for a pos­si­ble drink-drive charge. I’d had one beer and was driv­ing for my friend be­cause he had had too much to drink. My blood was tested seven hours later af­ter be­ing tor­tured – men­tal and phys­i­cal abuse,” says Mthombeni from Lon­don, where his play, I See You, is run­ning at the Royal Court Jer­wood Theatre Up­stairs. It will head home to The Mar­ket theatre on April 12. Mthombeni’s treat­ment at the hands of the po­lice hap­pened, he says, be­cause he re­fused to sign the form al­low­ing the po­lice to draw his blood with­out read­ing it first.

“While the doc­tor could not take my blood with­out my con­sent, she also did not in­ter­vene in pro­tect­ing me from abuse. And so the evening boiled down to this cop work­ing at break­ing down my will, and my be­lief in us liv­ing in a free and just so­ci­ety. In a way, he forced me to earn my free­dom.”

It was when he was at­tend­ing a play­writ­ing work­shop hosted by the Royal Court Theatre that he re­alised that he needed to try to put this night­mare be­hind him by writ­ing about it.

“At night, the Nelson Man­dela Bridge lights up with all the colours of the rain­bow. Un­der this light, a young man meets a young woman for a hook-up. Yet this one-night stand is in­ter­rupted by fate, by chance, by karma. A po­lice of­fi­cer kid­naps the young man and so the past South Africa en­coun­ters the present one. What is black? Who is en­ti­tled? Why do you care?” says Mthombeni about the play.

Be­ing black in the world to­day is an­other big theme in the play.

Born in 1981, Mthombeni was raised in the US. His fam­ily re­turned home when he was a teen, which he says “turned out to be a ter­ri­ble time to find your­self be­tween cul­tures ... I’m noth­ing spe­cial in this re­gard. There are many tran­si­tion chil­dren, born be­tween two cul­tures.”

The ques­tion on ev­ery­one’s lips is whether the po­lice who held Mthombeni were brought to jus­tice. He chose not to press charges af­ter he was re­leased.

“To be per­fectly hon­est, af­ter years of know­ing peo­ple and of hear­ing sto­ries of peo­ple who have been in our jus­tice sys­tem, I would rather avoid any in­ter­ac­tion. If I must fight that par­tic­u­lar bat­tle, it will be on my choice of bat­tle­ground, not theirs.” His bat­tle­ground is the stage. “Art is my weapon of choice. His was the gun and the dark­ness. Mine is the page and the stage ... I sur­vived. And so now I use art and me­dia to en­act a philo­soph­i­cal at­tack.

“By adding my voice and my story, we build an ide­o­log­i­cal force that will – hope­fully – change for the bet­ter the way cops in­ter­act with the pub­lic.”

Mongi Mthombeni’s I See You

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