As the madness of apartheid takes hold of fifties South Africa and the bulldozers turn towards Sophiatown, Drum Magazine, under the editorship of Sylvester Stein, alters its editorial content to face the new political situation. The violent and unsolved murder of investigative journalist Henry Nxumalo, the eponymous Mr Drum, devastates the staff and steers the magazine to open confrontation with the government.
Based on Stein’s account of his time at the magazine, this new play bristles with a mixture of excitement, comedy and drama, gloriously capturing the mood and people of the time. The performances are superb, led by Sello Maake Ka-ncube as Can Themba, the self proclaimed Shakespeare of the shebeens, forced to turn from his dissolute lifestyle and face the stark realities of the encroaching regime.
His friend Henry, played beautifully by Wale Ojo in a complex and demanding role, has already made this choice and lies murdered in the street. However, rather like the office it portrays, this is an ensemble piece with strong support offered by Stephen Billington as the white editor torn between the magazine’s white ownership and his loyalty to his black and mixed race staff. Lucian Msamati is the bookish Zeke, Andi Osho the beautiful Dolly Rathebe and an irrepressible Marcel McCalla is Casey Motsisi.
The import and power of this adaptation, coupled with the creation of well rounded portraits of the real writers of the time are flawed only by the need for serious editing in places. Paul Robinson’s exuberant direction battles to alleviate this problem as does Francisco Rodriguez-Weil’s brilliantly conceived and evocative set design.