“Mandela” at The American Theatre of Actors
I wonder if Director/Writer, John Ruiz Miranda and Writer/Producer, Yolanda Brooks, sitting at their dining room table and writing this show, knew the impact their play would have on the audiences who came to see it, the schools where it would be presented: and the relevance of telling this story now.
Many know the story of South African activist Nelson Mandela, leader of the South African anti Apartheid Movement. It is the story of an activist who never gave up and couldn’t be broken. He was jailed for 27 years often in horrific conditions, many of which were in solitary confinement and sent to work in a rock quarry, with the light from the limestone rock he toiled over, permanently damaging his eyes. 23 hours a day in isolation with only insects to talk to. After much campaigning by his wife Winnie and outside international economic pressure, apartheid as it existed in South Africa came to an end and Nelson Mandela went on to become President of South Africa 1994 to 1999.
This incredible cast brought the passion and essence of those characters into real time, with Mandela authentically channeled, by the performance of Robert Greene, from the genuine loyalty and camaraderie of Mandela’s team, to the unstoppable determination of wife Winnie Mandela, fiercely played by Malika Nzinga, to the brutally cruel prison warden, John Shortt. And as a person who loves interesting backstories, here are a few. There was an actual tank that was supposed to be used in the production, driven by director John Ruiz Miranda that never made it onstage being an inch too big to make it through the theatre’s doorway. And then when my friend sitting next to me exclaimed “that guy on the stage is my neighbor” I was of course riveted from that point on to actor Lamine Thiam a multi dimensional performer, originally from Senegal. And then there was a cameo played by our our New York State Senator Cordell Cleare, who was at the original ceremony in 1990 when Mayor Dinkens gave Mandela the key to the city. It took me a bit to realize she was an actual senator and not an actor.
Although we say art imitates life imitates art,I was not ready for Mandela’s story to be running such a parallel to the times we are in now. Although this is Black History Month, Black History is American History and right now in places one hour from NYC, school boards are challenging Critical Race Theory being taught in their schools and they are banning books. In Texas that list, which deals with books on race and lgbtq+ people is over 300. They are actually denying what has happened in history. Which is why this production of Mandela is so important. Because what actually happened was performed on that stage. And the archival footage used in this production was actual news clips from that time of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement here in America.
Although this was the last performance, the show will run again sometime in the spring. Definitely watch for it. Learn from it. Because they say history repeats itself. And that is unacceptable.