The Boot Dance

THE producer/director of The Boot Dance, Sa'Mi Chester, stands extremely militant on the subject of apartheid. For those who don't know him, it says so, right there in the program notes. It's written all over the stage of the South Dallas Cultural Center, in the scrawled phrases "Free Nelson Mandela," "Boycott DeBeers," and "Free South Afrika." It's emphasized by the small cast through the words and movement of Edgar White's script.

The Boot Dance itself is militant, although its themes extend beyond the boundaries of South Africa to include universal emotions and conditions. The four main characters, of different races and homelands, battle over whose pain and alienation is the greatest. In their common ground of an English mental ward, the characters spend a couple of hard hours revealing their wounds, rebuilding their scars.

A pre-show announcement that "The Boot Dance Hospital is now accepting patients" (no polite blinking of the overheads to signal this play's commencement) opens the evening of mandatory audience participation. Nurse Delphine (house manager Delphine Vasser-Bates) separates couples and friends into seating sections marked Blacks, Coloureds, and Whites, as three female Kaffirs in fatigues and shades stomp, whistle, and beat out a nervewracking tattoo in a compelling anti-overture. Slide shows and voiceovers describe "tensions" in South Africa, while Lazarus Mphele (Michael Cal Stewart) prepares for the first of his tarantismic boot dances...and the play has barely begun.

Be warned, the rest of this show's no picnic to view, either. In fact, nobody merely watches the many short, vivid scenes that make up The Boot Dance. Chester claims that one of his goals for this production is to "make the audience as uncomfortable as possible," to remind them what goes on every day under apartheid. He succeeds: It's impossible to leave the theatre without feeling exhausted.

The Zulu Lazarus, who left South Africa in a dance troup, has been committed for freaking out and wrecking a theater (his explanation: his late father, who encouraged him to "dance, dance\ the end, they will forgive your blackness\..never told me what happens when you stop dancing"). He alternately debates and allies with the West Indian guard Gibbs--with their accents, "guard" is pronounced "god"--whose cynical mockings of his employer, the white Dr. Adder, carry the opening scenes while Lazarus finds his dancing feet.

An expatriate with a desire to spend his next life as a racehorse ("a horse has a history, a pedigree"), Gibbs explains the lay of the land and sings Nat King Cole tunes as themes for his two charges, Lazarus and the patricidal mulatto Jannette. His role as a foil for Lazarus' plight grows throughout the play without diminishing the character's humor and humanity.

 The daughter of a weak, white mother and a mostly absent, abusive black father, Jannette has been institutionalized after she slit her father's throat and her mother slit her own wrists. In an exchange with Lazarus, she is asked, "How did you feel when you cut his throat?" "Wet." "You were scared?" "No," she replies dully, "he was bleeding all over me."

Jannette is favored and later pursued by the obnoxious Dr. Adder, who's wrestling with demons of his own, which seem mainly to be caused by his weak role. An opera-craving Jew whose wife and children are the bane of his existence, Adder is presented so unsympathetically that we can't help but snort when he confronts Lazarus with the line, "You think Jews haven't suffered?" A scene with Jannette is which Adder reveals himself as a fetishist is the play's only failed attempt at humor. Maybe Adder simply isn't militant enough.

Still, one of his early speeches is the key to the play's resolution and ultimate message. "How do you know you're crazy? You only know when you stop pretending to be normal." While Lazarus and Jannette shed their protective neuroses, Adder exposes his, revealing himself as the only true looney in the bin.

Michael Cal Stewart's seamless performance as Lazarus is so engrossing, one would never guess he learned the role in twelve days. David L. Butler (Gibbs), Quigley Provost (Jannette) and Gary Moody (Adder), as well as the three Chester-invented Kaffirs (Anglo Austin, Sharon Flowers, Sandra Terry), who all presumably had more time to become their characters, provide the stuff of great theatrical conflict. They all retain normality and humanity, and that's what makes The Boot Dance so strong.

The message of the play, at least as presented by Sa'Mi Chester (who sees this as relief from the year he spent providing the voice of "that damned plant" in regional productions of Little Shop of Horrors), is that pain is universal, so we can all apply our own woes toward empathy with those suffering under apartheid. As presented in The Boot Dance, that's one message not to be missed.