History As It Happened: The Fall

“Cecil John Rhodes. I learned about him in my second year African History course. It was then that I realized that the history they are teaching us is not the history of Africa but rather the history of how Britain and the Superpowers stole Africa and carved it up into little countries, with people like Leopold, Livingstone, and Rhodes featuring as heroes.”—The Fall

The Fall is a play forged in the #RhodesMustFall student protest movement, which began on March 9, 2015 when a University of Cape Town student hurled a bucket of human excrement onto a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist, industrialist, and former South African Prime Minister. Over the next five weeks, hundreds of UTC students massed around the statue, tagging it with graffiti, covering it in black garbage bags, and singing anti-Apartheid songs. Taking the statue as a symbol for ways the university still celebrates white culture at the expense of other cultures—its Eurocentric curriculum, its predominantly white governing council, the struggles of its students and faculty of color, its wholly inadequate financial and mental-health support for black students—they named themselves the Rhodes Must Fall Movement and occupied the university’s administration buildings, holding lectures on Apartheid history and strategizing their next moves for transforming the curriculum and university. On April 9, 2015, following a UCT Council vote the previous night, the statue was removed.

The aftermath of #RhodesMustFall dovetailed with #FeesMustFall, a call to action that began in October 2015 across the country at University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, when the administration announced that school fees would increase by 10.5% the following year. At a time when only 5% of black South African students who begin college graduate, protests quickly spread to other campuses as students, largely led by students of color, threatened to shut down their schools if they didn’t become affordable for students of color (who hold disproportionately little wealth in South Africa) and inclusive of their history or experiences. Indeed, the story-sharing at these activist assemblies proved critical to the movement’s momentum and endurance as battles stretched on and the police began to use stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets during protests.

The subsequent year of student protests spurred a movement—or affiliation of movements—that has been termed “Fallism,” with activists working collaboratively to decolonize power, identity, and knowledge systems, whether in fighting school fees (#FeesMustFall), stabilizing the University’s mostly black support staff (#OutsourcingMustFall), or remaking the curriculum and country in a new image (#PatriarchyMustFall, #ColonialismMustFall). As A. Kayum Ahmed writes in a review of The Fall, “Fallism is not only about the destruction of old symbols, but is also predicated on the creation of new knowledge and ideas that enable the humanization of black bodies.”

“We need to have plans beyond taking down the statue. We can’t decolonise with a chisel and hammer when we were colonized with a Bible and a gun.” —The Fall

During the end of the 2016 school year, the senior students of UCT’s drama department produced a seminal work of anti-Apartheid theatre: Barney Simon’s Black Dog/Inj`emnyama. Simon’s work, devised in 1984 with the original cast, interweaves multiple characters’ experiences during the 1976 Soweto Uprisings, a student-led protest—likewise over school fees and a Eurocentric curriculum—in which an estimated 20,000 students participated. Simon’s play looks at Apartheid from different perspectives, following the stories of unrelated people caught up in both the system and the student uprisings. The Soweto Uprisings, and the brutal police response that killed at least 176 students, are credited with beginning the phase of anti-Apartheid activism that ended South Africa’s official Apartheid policies.

The UCT production of Black Dog/Inj`emnyama was staged at The Baxter Theatre as well as on campus. Lara Foot, the Director and CEO of The Baxter Theatre Centre, was taken both with the timeliness of the revival and the talent of the students. She commissioned them, alongside their professor Clare Stopford, who directed Black Dog/Inj`emnyama, to create a piece in a similar vein about their experiences in the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall campus protests. The resulting piece is The Fall, devised by nine UCT drama majors, all people of color; it follows a group of students experiencing the heady success of the removal of the Rhodes statue, and their subsequent work to first imagine a decolonized curriculum and country and then to build consensus to fight for it. Taking stories from the student assemblies as its backbone, The Fall takes short scenes or solo moments from student meetings and punctuates them with choral moments of song and dance, evoking the optimism and fear of the protests themselves.

“When we didn’t have words, we found new ways to express ourselves.” —The Fall

“We wanted to tell real stories about real people in a really difficult time,” says Ameera Conrad, who co-wrote and performed in the piece, as well as serving as one of its two directors. “And even though a lot of the characters were not ourselves, we knew them. We’d occupied with them, we’d been stun-grenaded with them, we protested to have them released from jail. That’s what I think people connected with the most.”

The piece premiered at The Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town in 2016 and was remounted later in the year. The Baxter took it to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, where it received a Fringe First award, was rapturously reviewed (“funny and humane,” Time Out; “valuable and vital piece of theatre,” The Evening Standard) and subsequently toured to the Royal Court in London and St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York. It comes to DC in the midst of the US’s own conversations about protest, symbolic victories, and the hard work ahead of youth movements determined to leave their country changed in ways their parents’ generation did not.

“I want to be seen. I want to matter. I’m tired. My soul is tired but the reasons I came the first time won’t let me leave. They won’t let me live a normal life.”—The Fall