Out of Bounds” brought to the stage the lives of Indian immigrants in South Africa.
“Out of Bounds” authenticated the power of one. Rajesh Gopie drifted through 28 characters in 90 minutes, painting along the way a convincing picture of South African life. The one-man play from South Africa, directed by Tina Johnson and written and performed by Gopie as part of The Old World Theatre festival at The Habitat Centre, blends a universal story with situations particular to South Africa — both during and post apartheid.
From a perspective, “Out of Bounds” could be any coming-of-age tale. Gopie says, “It is about the younger man defeating the older man psychologically.” The classic father-son relationship, shifting power equations when the son gets into the father's shoes, annihilation of the persona of the father — are all vital elements in the play.
However, it is the finesse with which Gopie spins out lesser known chapters of South African history — the story of the Indian immigrants who went in as indentured labourers and lived through as the country changed its character — that is the hallmark of the production.
Gopie takes on and sheds roles deftly as he re-creates the large household in Inanda, where Babu Lal, the protagonist and his parents, lives with a platoon of aunts, uncles and cousins. Humour remains intact as Babu Lal narrates a childhood spent in a crowd, without an ounce of privacy. Every uncle and aunt has the right to pull up the children and the demure ones have to find ways to survive the bullies. To top it all is the burden of living as the ‘Lalchand warrior' — the image propagated by the family.
Gopie effortlessly becomes his shoemaker father, the aggressive uncle Bhim, the fashionable aunt Kanta and his grandmother who plants a mango tree in the garden for every son born.
Enacted with warmth is Babu Lal's relationship with maid Togo, the one who is forced to have meals five days old. There is a measure of restraint maintained as a pregnant Togo leaves the household. Though the child discovers his uncle Bhim, who becomes the “devil” with Togo at night, the episode is not dwelt upon, the skeletons in the family kept firmly in the closet.
A picture of apartheid South Africa is also given a glimpse of when the clan on their outing is admonished by the police and directed to use the part of the beach reserved for the coloured. Here, the charade of the “Lalchand warriors” comes crumbling down.
The Inanda riots in the early 1980s, where the Indian community was targeted, is acted out with heart. The riots, which are hardly ever talked about, prove a turning point, as the family disintegrates. Babu Lal and his parents move to downtown Phoenix while his uncles move up in life. The boy enters university and his father reconciles to failure.
Gopie, as he flips through characters, keeps the story and its strands together. For an actor performing as many as 28 characters, certain repetitions in mannerisms are unavoidable. But the ease with which he changes roles, keeping humour alive, is commendable.
Gopie who has taken the play around Europe and the United States, first performed it 10 years ago. He penned it after coming out of the university, and when South Africa was changing. “Indian people did not feature in the national sensibility of the country,” he says. What he initially scribbled in his little black book slowly took shape into a powerful play.
With its soul in place, the play never got fettered to being an Indian story, but confirmed its place as a “South African classic.”