Just how exciting and adventurous a political allegory can be is demonstrated by playwright Sibusiso Mamba in collaboration with director Ricardo Khan in “Train to 2010,” now having its world premiere at Crossroads Theater. Developed with Khan in an international writers’ collective in Johannesburg, London, and New York, called the World Theater Lab, this timely play is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the eve of the election that will make Barack Obama the first black president of the United States. It is also during the time that South Africa prepares to host soccer’s most prestigious event — the World Cup.
Surreal in its presentation but succinct in its message, this ambitious play is rooted not only in the contemporary socio-political landscape of one of the world’s youngest democracies, but also embedded in a dramatic arena that harks back to the oldest traditions of classical Greek theater. The play concerns the paths taken by two laborers — Sifiso (Yusef Miller) and Vavi (Sibusiso Mamba) — who are working side by side on a tunnel that will be a fast route for a new high speed train engineered to bring South Africa into the future.
But it is the past as well as the future that confront these two men as an explosion finds them suddenly trapped aboard the train. There is little doubt that we are going to be in overlapping worlds upon seeing the abstractly evocative set created collaboratively by David Hawkins, Tabitha Pease, and John Ezell. A large, flat iridescent rock is at center stage flanked by two large glass and metal flower-like structures. Although there is the use of a drill and the evidence of machinery, the place is clearly meant to be a dream world.
Excluding the two main characters, there are nine players who assume various roles, often with the use of masks. Although the play is dance-enhanced with some frenetic choreography by Diane McIntyre, many of the scenes are punctuated by the impassioned solo dancing of an expressive woman (Caroline Gombe) in a flowing white dress. Pretentious dramatic embroidery to be sure, but the context of the play remains at the fore: the testy and fragile relationship between the two men and the cause of the friction between them.
Finding themselves apart from each other on the train that separates first and second class passengers, they are visited by visions of their youth and family life. Throughout the ride, the mothers of Vavi and Sifiso attempt to find their sons even as they become unwittingly entangled in the politics and ethics of an unsettling world. Sifiso is fortunate that his mother worked as a servant for a white family where the wife elected to sponsor the bright young student. Although Sifiso does not get his certificate as an engineer from college, his education ensures him a better job. Sifiso’s sense of entitlement and feeling of superiority is an attitude that troubles his friend Vavi. An activist by nature and circumstance, Vavi responds to the new South Africa is to align himself with a man and a woman who want to blow up the first-class section of the train and prevent it from reaching the future.
Miller drives home Sifiso’s single-minded pursuit of a career with an impressive and impetuous force of energy. Mamba, the actor/playwright graduate from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, brings an incendiary sense of purpose to his role as the rage-propelled Vavi. Supporting roles are affectively played by Kila Packett and Heddy Lahman as a pair of on-board terrorists.
The play’s major conflict is between the Sifiso and Vavi and the way they are re-experiencing the past even as the train hurtles them into the future. Sifiso’s extraordinarily progressive plan for building the train as well as the power station finds him contracting with a consortium of mercenary business men. Two of these men Michael (Edward O’Blennis) and Gerard (Adam Ludwig) have no qualms about displacing the “squatters” from the land they want to use for their railway system that will connect South Africa to the world.
While there is ample opportunity and potential to make these men appear unscrupulously slimy and stereotypical, they are instead scarily sensible and realistic. O’Blennis and Ludwig are excellent embodying these determinedly uncompromising representatives of the apparently ever-prevailing upper class. Other supporting roles, mostly seen as ghostly cameos, are convincingly played by Caroline Gombe and Alvin Keith as Vavi’s parents, Zoey Martinson as an angel, Juliette Jeffers as Sifiso’s mother, and especially David Ryan Smith as a no-nonsense train conductor.
But will Sifiso have a change of heart during a blistering climactic confrontation between himself and Vavi? Will Vavi succeed in blowing up the train? There is a resolve, but it is one that is more symbolic than specific. Will those who lack an education and opportunity consigned by the very nature of an elitist society to remain forever demoralized and disenfranchised? Despite the inclusion of some highly lyrical prose, “Train to 2010” is still a polemic posturing as a play. It is, nevertheless, a forceful, well-intentioned wake-up call for those of us who would prefer to dream our way into the future.
“Train to 2010,” through Sunday, October 24, Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $40 to $50. 732-545-8100.