'Cry, the Beloved Country': pain of apartheid made real, personal

In the 1940s, South African writer-educator Alan Paton achieved the near-miraculous: He fused generations of cross-racial strife and suffering in his tormented native land into a novel of stirring impact and global appeal: "Cry, the Beloved Country."

Paton's widely-read tale of fathers and sons, black and white, in a nation shattered by colonial exploitation and racial division, remains as the author termed it: "a social record (that) is the plain and simple truth."

And after a long wait to secure the stage rights, Book-It Repertory Theatre has finally mounted a dramatic version of "Cry, the Beloved Country" that relates his story simply and movingly.

Paton's novel, and Myra Platt's fluid staging of Stefan Graves Lanfer's faithful adaptation, derive their power from personalizing the scarred modern history of South Africa — which, in 1948 (the year the book was published), formally instituted the apartheid system in which a native black majority could be "legally" subjugated by a ruling minority of British and Dutch descendants.

By juxtaposing the plights of neighboring fathers — the white, wealthy farmer James Jarvis (Terry Edward Moore) and the poor Zulu Christian minister Stephen Kumalo (William Hall Jr.) — "Cry, the Beloved Country" banishes any notion that humans can segregate suffering along racial lines.

The fates of Jarvis and Kumalo are conjoined by the rural land they love and occupy, and by a stroke of violence that destroys both their sons: Arthur Jarvis (Troy Fischnaller) and Absalom Kumalo (Sylvester Foday Kamara).

On Matthew Smucker's emblematic setting of rusty corrugated tin slabs and rough wooden boards, the play focuses initially on Hall's gentle, pious Kumalo, as he tries to reunite the displaced and scattered members of his own family.

From his humble parish house in the village of Ndotsheni, Kumalo travels to bustling Johannesburg for the first time. His journey to the big city is humorously evoked with typically effective Book-It ensemble tactics, as actors conjure the chugging, whistling and bouncing of a train ride, and the crush and hubbub of teeming urban streets.

Aided by a kindly younger minister, Msimangu (Reginald Andre Jackson), Kumalo quickly locates his estranged sister, now a prostitute with a young child. But tracking down Absalom (named, tellingly, after the rebellious son of the biblical King David) requires a tougher, frustrating search through bleak shanty towns and a well-meaning but ineffectual juvenile reform school (modeled on a reformatory Paton ran).

The quest also sends Kumalo into confrontations with his politically radical and opportunistic brother, John (Stanley N. Shields), and with the organizer of a black bus boycott (Ekello Harrid Jr.).

Eventually, the path literally dead-ends with the murder of Arthur Jarvis, an eloquent young white crusader against apartheid. And the story shifts to record the grief experienced by Arthur's loving mother (Pam Nolte) and rigid, conservative father. (Moore is notably subtle and compelling as the elder Jarvis, who is quietly transformed by his idealistic son's death.)

There's an obvious Christian strain in "Cry, the Beloved Country," particularly in the sacrifice of two "only sons," by two bereft fathers. And Jarvis and Kumalo are also united in their hope for a resurrection — a new, enlightened South Africa which would only emerge after more decades of bloodshed and anguish, with the 1994 presidential election of longtime apartheid foe Nelson Mandela. (Paton, sadly, did not witness the end of apartheid: He died in 1988 at age 85.)

The Book-It production unrolls in a straightforward, absorbing manner — a real feat for such an episodic tale with so many settings and characters. Carissa Bush's African-inspired costumes, Patti West's lighting and spurts of Zulu music enhance the telling.

And while the performances by the 14-member cast are generally fine rather than exemplary, some actors are outstanding — especially Moore, the stalwart Jackson and the heartbreakingly dignified and burdened Hall.

One can view "Cry, the Beloved Country" strictly as a South African saga. But it's hard to miss some parallels with the American experience of slavery — which also subjugated black workers for economic gain, splintered families and engendered a heated debate between apostles of nonviolent change and proponents of militant revolution.

"Cry, the Beloved Country" frames the South African struggle in both political and spiritual terms. And it is Rev. Kumalo's compassionate view, born of pain and forbearance, that dominates Paton's saga.

Any man who lives through what he does, and can advise a parishioner to "Hate no man. There is enough hate in our land already," really practices what he preaches.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Theater review

"Cry, the Beloved Country" by Alan Paton. Book-It Repertory Theatre at Seattle Center House Theatre, Seattle Center. Through April 10; $15-$26 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).