Based on a book by Fred Khumalo and adapted for the stage by South African theatre company Isango Ensemble and playwright Gbolahan Obisesan as part of the 14-18 Now arts programme marking the centenary of the First World War, SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill recounts the tragedy of a civilian vessel co-opted into military service. It was sunk in the English Channel on February 21, 1917, close to Southampton.
Mark Dornford-May’s production begins with a roll-call of the deceased – a lament for the souls of the dead. Person after person steps up to state their name, where they are from and the date they died. As they recite, a swell of music gradually crescendos until they are eventually inaudible. Their voices are drowned out, just as the waves drowned them on that fateful day.
There is no set to speak of and the Isango Ensemble’s style is impressively minimal. A single piece of rope is the bow of the ship; a length of fabric becomes the sea’s waves. But it is the soundscape that is most remarkable – operatic singing is combined with a mix of traditional percussion instruments: marimbas, drums, hands and feet, alongside more innovative ones: plastic bottles, dustbins, chains, buckets of water and bricks.
Black people made an important contribution to both world wars, something that is often overlooked in the history books. This is a story that must be heard – and this is a regal retelling of it.