January Riddle Reviews - Theater

The aftermath is often the most excruciating aspect of war. When the dust settles, exposing the rubble, the real work begins. Governments may divide the territorial spoils, but individuals must negotiate their own spaces.

That private negotiation is the focus of Groundswell, South African native Ian Bruce’s intriguing and disquieting drama set in post-apartheid South Africa. Aptly directed by Kyle Donnelly, the production offers an uncomfortable look at the reality of race and class disparity not unique to its set country. Currently occupying the limited and confining Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre stage of San Diego’s Old Globe, the play showcases three men’s searches for personal peace. As the diamond mines were an integral part of both the oppression and the wealth of South Africa, it is no coincidence that they figure into the plot.

Although not a declared war in the usual sense, the social and political system labeled apartheid (Afrikaans for “apartness”) that held more than 80% of South Africa’s people hostage for forty-plus years devastated the nation and its souls. Its official ending in 1991 terminated the racial segregation and the punishing international sanctions. Nelson Mandela’s election to President several years later signaled only the beginning of an ethnic and economic reconstruction depending upon South Africa’s people.

Two of those people, Thami and Johan, inhabit Garnet Lodge, a beachfront resort on west South Africa’s coast; a third, Smith, drops in for a visit. Each man has his own approach to reconciliation, as well as his own share of responsibility. Each bears his own wounds, and none is ready to lay down all his weapons.

The resort caretaker, Thami, could claim the most injury, yet holds out the most hope. A black man whose family was first ripped apart by decades of government-sanctioned injustices and is now struggling to salvage some means of support, Thami dreams of a house in his village, where he can be a man among his Khosa people, just living with his wife and children. Beautifully wrought and perfectly spoken by Owiso Odera, Thami is the essence of a displaced person whose search for meaning must end in a return to cultural and physical place.

His friend Johan, a former cop with a bad past and now a professional diver employed by diamond mines, has a different vision. Potently played by Antony Hagopian, Johan sees his and Thami’s future in a government-declared, homesteader-like act that offers depleted diamond mines to ordinary folks who can come up with the funds to purchase a concession. His body wracked by the effects of too many dives ending in the painful condition called bends and his mind twisted by trying to maintain a middle-class existence in a third world situation, Johan envisions a wealthy retirement with his pal, Thami, and their mutual business.

It is a dark and foggy night, full of tension and the sounds of a warning (and intentionally irritating?) sea bell when Smith, a retired banker looking for a golf course in this port town, arrives for a stay in the guesthouse. Ned Schmidtke portrays Smith’s entitled white man character precisely, but he needs more time with a dialect coach to avoid lapsing into Southern U.S. twang.

The unforeseen visitor inspires Johan to make a plan for financing the concession that will liberate him and Thami from their current financial doldrums. He will convince Smith to invest the funds and become a partner, and the trio will reap the spoils.

Unfortunately, Smith is much more pessimistic about the venture than the others, labeling it a government scam and immediately tweaking Johan into vicious mode. Alternating between aggressive physical threats and equally brutal blame-game guilt-assignment, Johan forces a showdown that dissolves the alliance he thought he had. He launches into a (too long) diatribe full of accusations against Smith, a businessman who benefited most obviously from apartheid. In demanding that Smith compensate Thami for white domination, Johan declares that white South Africans fear their black compatriots, a truth that accounts for the “white flight” of the mid 1990s and the current uneasy cultural climate of the country. The absence of war does not mean peace comes to all its citizens.

The anticipated groundswell did not, and does not happen. None of the men wins this battle, but maybe one of them, like the peacemaker president, retains his honor.

"Groundswell" by Ian Bruce plays at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre through April 17.
Performances: Tues-Weds at 7 p.m.; Thurs-Sat at 8 p.m.; Sun at 7 p.m. Sat & Sun matinees at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $29-$67, with discounts for full-time students, patrons 29 and under, seniors and groups.
Reservations: online at, by phone at (619) 23-GLOBE or at the box office, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.
Reviewer January Riddle served in South Africa as Educational Resource Specialist in the U.S. Peace Corps from July, 2002 to October, 2004.