Nelson Mandela’s inestimable value to humanity in general and to the abolishment of apartheid in particular cannot be thoroughly assessed or overestimated, nor are they in a new play that bears his name. As written by Yolanda Brooks & John Ruiz Miranda, who also directs, Mandela is a meandering miasma of information. It also suffers by an utterly amateurish performance by Robert Greene in the title role. One winning asset, however, is the portrayal of Mandela’s wife, Winnie, by Nadijah Abdul Khaliq. Also to its credit is the evocative lighting design by Maarten Cornelis, which, more than merely illuminating the play, gives it a kind of life.
The play begins when the entire cast walks down the central aisle, but they’re all overly strident, and one can’t understand a word they’re saying. It improves once they’re on stage, however. “I never lost a bar fight in my life,” says Robert, Mandela’s fellow-recruiter to the cause of freedom from Apartheid. “I heard Joseph got beat up last night in the bar.”
“I know who you are, the great lawyer for the people,” Winnie says, when she first meets Mandela. Mandela responds, “I’ve seen you around in court and I know you are the first black social worker in South Africa. I hear you are doing a lot of good work for our people.” As Mandela also says, “South Africa is a land ruled by the gun,” and, “We are prisoners on our own land!” and, referring to the South African government, “They are having a party and we are not invited.”
Though no one is credited with sound design in the program, the real-sounding effects include the whirling buzz of helicopters, sirens, and “police sound effects of a raid.”
But given the lack of focus, it’s ultimately we, in the audience, who get “beat up.” Indeed, all of the audience-members to my left (I was sitting in an aisle seat) and in the row in front of me left during the intermission. Unfortunately, they missed one other winning effect twenty minutes into the second act, when the cast performs a spirited dance. But even that proves far too little, and far too late.
You also get the feeling that director Miranda is pleased simply because the actors remember their lines. It’s as if he gave up on their delivering anything like convincing performances.
The most effective scene is the fifth, which features Winnie’s winning monologue. “We both shared a passion to free our people,” she says, but even then, the play proves more declarative than dramatic.
Mandela (return engagement February 8 – 27, 2022)
East Harlem Repertory Theater in association with Yolanda Brooks Productions
American Theatre of Actors, 315 W. 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, http://www.ofcf.ticket/leap.com/mandela.dates
Running time: two hours and 55 minutes including one intermission