From the moment those five guys hit the stage, in their khakis and shaved heads, the energy snaps, crackles and pops. It never relents until it's over--an hour and 45 minutes later.
What happens in "Asinamali!," the touring black South African anti-apartheid presentation making a two-week stopover at the Mark Taper Forum? Plenty, but it's not easy to tell you what.
The performers move like the wind. They are so physical, so wired, so interconnected, so passionate and rapid in their delivery--and so difficult to understand through their thick black South African accents--that it takes a certain amount of perceptive agility just to keep up with them.
Nor does it necessarily matter if you don't--or don't entirely--as long as the sense is there. The style of performance is so ingenuous and agitprop that we bask helplessly in the sheer exuberance of it all. (Writer/director Mbongeni Ngema was inspired, he says, by El Teatro Campesino, Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski.)
We are confronted by five ebullient prisoners, each telling his own tale of horror, ranging from the unfairly condemned to those of an activist, a murderer, a thief and a victim of South Africa's wretched Immorality Act (inflicting the grimmest penalties for miscegenation). It's a raw kind of truthtelling, clearly designed to excite the already converted.
No excuses are offered and few explanations needed, since the apartheid system is the unspoken cause, effect and executioner at once. The medium becomes the message. In this case, the medium is a deeply joyous explosion of dance, movement, humor and song (excellent, idiosyncratic a capella).
There's nothing on stage but chairs, a prop or two and a childlike exultation that consumes everything in its path. Ngema's stagecraft as a director ranges from the sophisticated (the singing and dancing are astonishing, if only for the profound sense we get that they are natural extensions of the actors themselves) to the naive or merely artificial.
(Infiltrating the audience and/or badgering its individual members are bad western habits to have picked up--habits that should have died with the '60s that abused them. They're indulged in briefly here and without much reason.)
Of course, without Ngema's amazing and virtually symbiotic performers there would be no play. The five are Solomzi Bisholo, Thami Cele, Bongani Hlophe, Bheki Mqadi and Bhoyi Ngema. There is no choosing among them, though Mqadi's wild-eyed youth and missing two front teeth endear him to us forever.
Ngema found the inspiration for "Asinamali!" (which means "We Have No Money!") when he toured the U.S. in 1982 with "Woza Albert!" and was awakened to the theater's tremendous power to affect. "Asinamali!" is different from and yet of a piece with the John Kani/Winston Ntshona anti-apartheid "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead" and "The Island" that played the Taper in 1975. In all cases, these black South African artists appear to find in humor the natural expiation of their anger and in sweetness the purest vindication for their cause.
Ngema's "Asinamali!" text is a little more confusing than it might be and the show about 10 minutes longer than it should be, but it bristles with life and sizzles with intelligence. Such fresh, positive, unstoppable energy could take over the world. Sitting through it makes you realize that it can only be a matter of time before it does.
A Committed Artists Production of a play by Mbongeni Ngema, presented by the Mark Taper Forum, the Market Theatre and Columbia Artists Theatrical Corp. Director Mbongeni Ngema. Lighting designer Mannie Manim. Assistant lighting designer David Muller. Production stage manager Al Franklin. Stage manager Makalo Mofokeng. Cast Solomzi Bisholo, Thami Cele, Bongani Hlophe, Bheki Mqadi, Bhoyi Ngema. Plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Ends Aug. 9. Tickets $15 (213-410-1062 or 714-634-1300).