Michael Lessac’s “Truth in Translation” is like a backstage musical in which instead of a chorus line there’s a team of translators, and instead of a show there’s the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the remarkable body set up in 1995 to heal the wounds of apartheid in South Africa. The production, which tours several U.S. cities after its Edinburgh Fringe run, would benefit from tighter writing and a less laissez-faire structure. But in its quest to capture the turmoil of that momentous period of transition and in Hugh Masekela’s breezy Afro-jazz score, this is a distinctive piece of theater that expresses the raw voice of a brave nation.
In content, “Truth in Translation” is part of a wave of recent theater that dissects current events in the hope that the dramatic form will make sense of an often bewildering reality. Typically, such plays are built on verbatim interviews and testimonies and have confronted such issues as the war in Iraq, miscarriages of justice in the U.S. penal system and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Lessac’s play is different in that, although it concerns itself with the Cape Town commission that listened to victims of human rights violations and offered amnesty to perpetrators, it takes a step back by focusing on the team whose job it was translate those testimonies into South Africa’s 11 languages.
It means not only do we hear extracts of interviews with ordinary people who suffered cruelly under the racist regime, and with prominent figures such as Winnie Mandela and a defiant P.W. Botha, but also we see the reactions of the people charged with listening and translating them.
Before the house lights go up, a booming voice warns, “You must not make judgments or take sides . . . you are witnesses, that is all . . . do not become involved.” The instruction is to the translators, but it applies equally to the audience in appreciating the open-hearted vision of a nation prepared to look its vicious past in the eye and forgive.
As the show progresses, we get glimpses of the pressures placed on translators whose personal allegiances and family lives are sorely tested in their attempts to stay neutral while processing such emotionally charged material. Sometimes they cope with bursts of black humor, other times they hit out in violent rages or threaten to quit altogether.
Such scenes can be sketchy and rambling, too often betraying the devised nature of the script. But they put a human face on the enormity of the task South Africa set for itself in confronting its demons, and, in the company’s own words, they show a set of “imperfect witnesses caught in a conflict between watching and participating (but with) no place to hide.”
If this material is uneven, the show’s great strength is in Masekela’s music. If this were a backstage musical, the songs would never be so forthright or so bleak. “Her skin came off in my hands,” sings one woman about rescuing a baby from a fire. “His tongue was pulled and stretched,” goes another number.
Shocking though such images are, reflecting torture, police brutality and revenge killings, they are set to the sweetest music, ravishingly performed by the whole company with three musicians in front of a backdrop made up of shirts — as if to remind us of the lives lost during the apartheid years.
Unfocused as the play can be, it carries a valuable message about the possibility of change and forgiveness in a world torn apart by conflict. Post-Edinburgh, the production travels to Dallas; Flint, Mich.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Washington, D.C.