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Maybe Cecil Rhodes got a passing reference in your childhood history books. Maybe you recall, after dredging the remaining memories of your world history class, as this reviewer did, his desire to connect Cairo and Cape Town, and the celebration of his imperialist ways. History books do have a way of distorting the past. Rhodes is better remembered as a colonialist and a thief, and best not celebrated at all.
That’s what students at the University of Cape Town argued in the 2015 #RhodesMustFall movement—a movement that sought to decolonize education in Cape Town. Over the course of 10 months, students and activists worked to remove an on-campus statue of Cecil Rhodes and, later, change education financing.
Despite their differences, the seven students in The Fall (played by the stellar company of Ameera Conrad, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Zandile Madliwa, Sihle Mnqwazana, Cleo Raatus, Oarabile Ditsele, and Tankiso Mamabolo) agree on a strategy to topple the statue of Rhodes. The deliberations are occasionally funny— at one point, one student unconvincingly advances the classic “they can’t arrest us all” theory—but mostly emotional, as the students try to channel their rage toward something productive.
Throughout the play, the cast deliver interstitial monologues giving voice to the students’ innermost thoughts and fears, often set to the singing, chanting, and clapping of the other six actors. These speeches give The Fall the feel of a live oral history, as the students grapple with their youth, role in history, and experiences as black people in South Africa. In a small theater and on a sparsely decorated stage, these moments are The Fall’s most powerful.
Once the statue falls, the movement threatens to fracture, as the students grapple with their ideological differences. Female students call the men out (rightly) on their patriarchal ways, and class and sexuality come into conflict. It’s a bit like a crash course on intersectionality, and that The Fall never feels like a sociology lecture is a testament to its razor-sharp cast, most of whom also created the play.
The production feels completely and comfortably modern. From the way the students interact with one another to the way they handle their phones, it all felt very familiar to this reviewer, who graduated from college one year before the events of The Fall. Indeed, seeing a play that takes young people and their concerns so seriously has proven more cathartic than I expected in the days following the show.
The Fall will mean different things to different audience members. For some, it will make an educational and entertaining evening. Others will feel seen and heard. While almost everyone will leave The Fall examining some facet of privilege or oppression in a new light, many people don’t need to be educated on truths too long lived and known.
What, then, is something all viewers, no matter their lived experience, can take from this show? Anger, maybe. A recognition of its validity, the strength to direct it toward evil, and the power to maintain it, even after the lights fade.
To Nov. 18 at 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$55. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.