Why a Group of Artists From South Africa Are Telling the Story of America in Dark Noon | Playbill

Off-Broadway News Why a Group of Artists From South Africa Are Telling the Story of America in Dark Noon

The show, which has toured all over Europe, has now landed in America at St. Ann's Warehouse Off-Broadway.

Company of Dark Noon Soren Meisner

During one part of Dark Noon, on the stage covered in red dirt, the actors start building. They erect walls, hang up curtains, move furniture. It’s supposed to represent the beginnings of the American frontier. But when South African co-director and choreographer Nhlanhla Mahlangu looks at the stage, he doesn’t see America. He sees home.

“They look exactly like Phola Park squatter camp,” says Mahlangu. He grew up in the Phola Park informal settlement in Cape Town, under apartheid. In those settlements, which were all over the country, the poor Black communities erected makeshift homes out of corrugated iron, plastic, and wood. Officials would regularly order those homes bulldozed. But the residents would not leave; they would rebuild.

“You get so used to your house being destroyed,” explains Mahlangu. “And when you are rebuilding it, you’re playing music and you’re having your beer and you’re rebuilding your house. Sometimes you don’t even finish building it, you sleep with no roof. All the houses we have in Dark Noon have no roofs.”

That notion, of destruction and violence operating hand-in-hand with music and playfulness, lies at the center of Dark Noon. The show, created by the Denmark theatre company fix+foxy, is a dramatization of 300 years of American history told through the lens of the Western—there are gunslingers, saloon ladies, and almost cartoonish depictions of shoot-outs. Though unlike the traditional Western, which held up the white cowboy as a hero and romanticized the American frontier, Dark Noon portrays white faces as carriers of violence—and it spotlights the Black, Native American, and Chinese people who built America and who were usually the victims of that violence.

Notably, Dark Noon stars a team of South African actors, predominantly Black. “It’s very much about the power of telling the story and being the one in power of telling a story,” says co-director and scriptwriter Tue Biering.

Dark Noon premiered in 2019 in Copenhagen, then toured to France, Germany, and the U.K. St. Ann’s Warehouse founder and Artistic Director Susan Feldman saw Dark Noon at the 2023 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, after which she was inspired to bring the show to America. “What attracted me most was the humor and sense of play brought to the outrageous, preposterous, and yet deadly notions of TV Westerns. (My dad was an avid fan, and we watched them all the time, especially on Sunday nights.) The cartoonish send-up of our violent upbringing, juxtaposed with the lawlessness of our current predicaments, seems a fun way to refocus the lens on who we are, where we’re from, and how we live. The actors and the audience are having a ball up there on the stage, and the energy is infectious.” St. Ann’s fall show, Life & Times of Michael K, also came from the Edinburgh Fringe.

READ: Playbill's Review of Dark Noon at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

The initial idea for Dark Noon came from Biering wanting to make a play about “the European gaze on Africa” with his company fix+foxy, which specializes in devising work with underrepresented communities. But then the thought of him, as a white director, telling a story about Africa, even if it was well-intentioned, was “a very ignorant idea,” he admitted sheepishly. A friend then introduced him to Mahlangu. Over the course of a year, through numerous workshops in Johannesburg, South Africa, the two assembled a team of actors who could devise a show together and take ownership of the story they were telling.

Dark Noon co-directors Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Tue Biering

The Western as a genre became a framing device—the entire cast and Mahlangu vividly remembered watching Wild West dramas growing up. “When you grow up in an impoverished township, not a lot of houses have TVs. And when you find an opportunity to watch TV, it’s such a big event, and what’s on TV has a very high impact on your life,” says Mahlangu. “The Western movies, and their violence and their guns, were always there creeping in.”

And in Westerns, the faces of color in them were always either subservient or villainous—they were either ignored or killed by a white cowboy. This led to the actors, in the rehearsal room, reflecting upon South Africa and its own history of apartheid and violence against Black bodies. In Dark Noon, actor Lillian Tshabalala-Malulyck tells the audience that “many people in my township died by the gun, and I blame the Westerns for romanticizing it so much. And most importantly—Africans didn’t bring guns to South Africa.”

So, even though Dark Noon is billed as a subversive exploration of American history, it’s actually about South Africa, says Mahlangu. Just like how there are parts of American history that have not been taught in schools or spoken about, there’s also a culture of silence in South Africa—the wounds of apartheid are still open and not acknowledged.

“The conversation that never happened was the superiority complex—the scars and the sickness of superiority complex that lives in white people and the scars and the inferiority complex that lives in Black people,” explains Mahlangu. “Not recognizing the past, not having a conversation creates a scarred society.”

Dark Noon

He’s saying that about South Africa, though he can easily say that about America (and he’s happy for American audiences to make that connection). What these directors hope for is that Dark Noon can inspire difficult, and necessary, conversations.

“The easiest for me could be just doing shows with voices that we can all agree with,” says Biering. But that’s not what propels him as an artist, he says. “I should facilitate the conversation of different voices, voices that haven’t been heard, or voices that we are afraid of listening to, voices that we would avoid…If we’re not having this conversation, then we are looking into a polarized world, where we will have two different sections [who have] never been able to talk because it is so difficult to talk with the opponent, and it becomes more and more and more and more difficult…I think my audience should be challenged.”

Through being in a room together, perhaps there can be healing. Despite its heavy subject matter, the directors of Dark Noon point out repeatedly that the show is also a satire. The actors dance, they sing, they laugh. The audience is also invited to laugh and engage. In his own work as a choreographer, Mahlangu is always asking: “What are your traumas that live inside your body? And can we take them all out and create and make dance out of it? And make songs? Can you make lemonade out of these lemons? And for me, it helps me find the truth.”

So what is Dark Noon? Says Manlangu simply: “This is not a show. It is a cleansing ceremony. Not cleansing the land and the people, but cleansing yourself.”

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