The legacy of Apartheid lives on even today, two decades after the end of its ugly segregationist laws, in Groundswell, Ian Bruce’s ninety-minute psychological thriller now getting an absolutely swell Southern California production at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre.

On the surface, Groundswell’s plot seems a simple one. Two South African friends, one white, one black, attempt to persuade a wealthy white fellow countryman to invest in their somewhat shady diamond mining scheme.

Policeman turned alcoholic handyman Johan (Antony Hagopian) and gardener-caretaker Thami (Owiso Odera) work at a remote seaside guest lodge on South Africa’s West Coast. The two have invited businessman (and lodge guest) Smith (Ned Schmidtke) to dinner tonight in hopes of turning their gone-sour lives around. Their get-rich scheme may be Johan’s inspiration, but Thami is an essential part of it, the government’s offer to auction off portions of an abandoned diamond mine available only to businesses with at least one black partner. All the down-on-their-luck buddies need to complete the transaction is the cash Johan is certain they can convince Smith to invest.

Though it takes a good while for Groundswell to get past the long stretches of dialog that set the scene for its gripping final half-hour, once it has arrived there, the result makes for truly edge-of-your-seat theater.

Rendering Groundswell much more than just a conventional psychological thriller is the extent to which Apartheid’s legacy plays a part in its unfolding. As a black man barely scrounging enough money to send home to the wife and children he has left behind in the city, Thami would seem to be the most obvious victim of Apartheid, but he is not the only one. Ex-policeman Johan not only lost his career in law enforcement but ended up jailed for manslaughter when he shot and killed a black man who pointed a finger at him, a finger Johan assumed was a gun. (Would he have made the same assumption had the man been white?) Reduced now to working as a commercial diver, a job which is slowly but surely destroying his health, Johan sees this money-making scheme as a do-or-die last chance at financial and personal salvation. As for Smith, no amount of charitable contributions can erase his sense of white guilt for the evils of Apartheid, a guilt a steadily drunker Johan attempts to take advantage of through the art of persuasion, and if that doesn’t work, a knife just may do the trick.

Under Kyle Donnelly’s highly assured direction, all three actors give pitch-perfect performances, work that rises to a bravura level as Groundwell heads towards its powerful final moments.

Kate Edmund’s splendid in-the-round scenic design makes the audience at the Sheryl And Harvey White Theatre virtual flies on the wall as Groundswell’s plot twists unravel. Denitsa Bliznakova has designed three character-reflecting costumes, Russell H. Champa’s fine lighting design accentuates the suspense, and sound designer Lindsay Jones scores highest marks for the wind and waves which situate us on South Africa’s icy West Coast, and for the subtle underscoring that keeps us ever further on the edge of our seats. Dialect coach Gillian Lane-Plescia shares credit for what seem to be three spot-on South African accents. Annette Ye is stage manager.

Groundswell makes for a terrific companion piece for Athol Fugard’s many plays about South Africa then and now. Apartheid may be a dark stain on South Africa’s history, but as Groundswell proves once again, it has inspired some absolutely first-rate theater.

Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
–Steven Stanley
March 27, 2011
Photos: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz

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