My direct maternal ancestor Robert Cushman chartered the Mayflower. This is really cool from a historical perspective—and could be cool from a spiritual perspective, if it weren’t one of the many catalysts for the violent destruction of entire civilizations. Maybe it’s because of this that Gregory Maqoma’s story hit me so hard.
Gregory Maqoma is the direct descendant of a Xhosa chief, also named Maqoma, who fought for his people’s survival in the face of European slaughter at the end of the 18th century. Dutch settlers came into the Cape Town area (I think, I should Google this shit but I’m on a roll) and took over white man style and then got some other tribes to join the fight and there were Boers involved and maybe some Brits but the main thing is: shit got really messed up. Gregory Maqoma’s ancestor was Chief Maqoma, not the first of his family to be affected by it all, but as the screen above the stage said, “the one who was chosen to [walk the path? something like that—didn’t quite catch that quote].” This statement brings the connection between the ancestor and the performer into focus: Chief Maqoma was chosen to fight for his people and Gregory Maqoma was chosen to tell the story.
The stage is simple, with no backdrop save a sheer black curtain. Behind the curtain, barely visible, is a solo guitar player. The music is gorgeous mostly-classical acoustic guitar with the singing and spoken word of four men, who first appear behind the screen clothed in robes and rather spooky white masks. Maqoma dances alone for the entire show. He begins with his back to the audience, dressed in a white suit, moving up and down the stage moving his hands and arms in such perfect rhythm with the guitar that it appears as if he’s making the music happen with his limbs—invisible guitar strings strung across the stage that respond to each movement with crisp, complex notes. After a few minutes his movements turn to heavy, funky, anxious isolations of his lower body: an overture to the story about to be told.
A screen above the stage sometimes runs pieces of text to introduce a new part of the story, not intrusively but just enough to give some context when there’s a change of scenery or costume. Maqoma demonstrates the agricultural demise of his people, running his hands through piles of grain on the floor, watching and dancing underneath a slow, thin stream of grain that falls from the ceiling as the panic and terror of a civilization unfolds through his increasingly sad movements. He’s always moving, the singers joining him onstage as their varied tones and volumes match and illustrate the search for peace, victory, and stolen cattle that signify the final, fatal death throes of an entire tribe.
I have never seen a performance that makes me care about the performer the way I hurt for Maqoma as he told this tale of violence—it is a history lesson in its most evocative form: that which reminds us of the individual horror of imperialism. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Melody Elena Datz is a freelance writer living in Seattle. She can be found writing about dance and reproductive science for The Stranger, analyzing research at the UW and chasing chickens around her Wallingford bungalow.
Photo by John Hogg of Gregory Maqoma/Vuyani Dance Theatre’s Exit/Exist, presented by On the Boards and Seattle Theatre Group Oct 24-27, 2013.