As its name suggests, Magnet Theatre seeks to draw people together. In today’s South Africa, that means connecting people of different races, ethnicities, cultures and language groups, as the country continues the still-agonizing process of negotiating a viable nation in the post-apartheid era.
The Capetown-based theater draws its inspiration from that goal, and its aesthetic from the physical theater practice of co-founder Jennie Reznek. She’s the co-creator of Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking, which is currently on tour and making a stop this week at UMass. The week-long residency culminates in four performances in the newly spiffy Rand Theater.
Reznek, who is white, performs the show with fellow company member Faniswa Yisa, who is black. Together, they enact a migratory tale of loss and recovery. Beginning when a family is violently driven from its home in an unnamed central African country, it follows a mother and daughter on their journey of hope and despair in search of refuge.
While the piece “is ostensibly about the situation of refugees in Africa,” director Mark Fleishman says in an online trailer for the show, “to me the play is about displacement—a sense of loss of place, not only geographical. This piece is very intent on raising the possibility that the arts have a role to play in helping people to deal with the trauma of loss.”
Although the story traverses vast spaces, the performance is enclosed in a flagstoned circle, with only a metal table and a few simple props, including flowing fabrics and a pair of shoes. There is also minimal dialogue, in several languages, but most of the communication comes through movement and gesture. This approach is at the core of Magnet’s work and performance philosophy.
“Everyone can read the body,” says Yisa in the trailer. “We don’t have to rely on a specific language.” The piece, and physical theater in general, “asks people to engage imaginatively with the images they see in the space,” Reznek adds. The show’s theme and title are poignantly reflected in a movement sequence where we see an exhausted Yisa leaning on Reznek, whose hands grasp a pair of shoes on the tabletop, moving them forward one slow shuffling step at a time.
There is a third performer, Neo Muyanga, who wrote and performs the original music that flows through the story. “The music is a character on its own, intertwined with the bodies,” Yisa explains.
For a quarter-century, Magnet Theatre’s mission has been about “making space” in South Africa: “making space for theatre, education [and] cultural dialogue that energizes audiences by shifting bodies, assumptions, feelings, beliefs and understandings.” As Reznek says, “We always try to find a conversation between an internal, personal landscape and an external, social or political landscape.”
“Under the apartheid era, we were making statements that were resisting the regime in some kind of way,” says Fleishman. “Now the situation is more complex. Theater and the arts become a space where people can deal with personal issues and social issues that affect communities on a much more intimate level.”•
Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking: through Feb. 2, Rand Theater, UMass-Amherst, umass.edu/theater, tickets (413) 545-2511 or (800) 999-UMAS.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.