Art as a weapon against brutality
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