Review of 'Who Killed Mr Drum?' by Fraser Grace and Sylvester Stein, Riverside Studios, London
The death of a reporter on a South African magazine nearly 50 years ago is the backdrop for a play that explores the chilling impact of apartheid. It offers a fascinating portrait of 1950s South Africa and the resistance of young black writers.
Drum was the first black publication written by black South Africans for black South Africans. Its investigative reporting challenged the apartheid system to such an extent that the staff were routinely arrested and held for days on end. The proprietor and editor were of necessity white. Sylvester Stein was the liberal white editor from 1955 until 1958 when the political situation in South Africa forced him to flee to England. His memoir, Who Killed Mr Drum? forms the basis of this play which is co-authored with Fraser Grace.
The play starts with the murder of Henry Nxumalo in Sophiatown. It then moves back and forth in time to explore differing attitudes to the horrors of apartheid. You are transported into a world where bulldozers are razing Sophiatown - where the magazine was based, and which until then had been the cultural heart of black Johannesburg, similar to Harlem in New York. A key theme of the play is how far an oppositional but popular magazine can go in attacking a repressive regime. The fast-living Drum journalists wrestle with the contradictions of surviving as a magazine at the price of suppressing or taking an indirect approach to vital issues.
Star writer Can Themba (terribly overacted), referred to as the 'Shakespeare of the shebeens', is a Sartrean existentialist whose motto is 'Lucky Narcissus'. In the face of the tightening grip of the apartheid authorities he finds his release in endless partying and affairs including a beautiful black singer named Dolly, then latterly Lizzie, a white woman from London. Later in the play she attempts to persuade him to leave South Africa and come to London, which she describes as 'Sophiatown with pavements'. For him, 'Drum is cheeky, we stick out the tongue, more than the neck.'
Moving in a different direction is his friend, the heroic Henry Nxumalo (excellently portrayed by Wale Ojo) who is committed to factual investigation and becomes known as Mr Drum, the embodiment of a more politically engaged reporting. His investigations expose the outrages of an increasingly repressive apartheid South Africa, and we are acquainted with 'black velvet' - a particularly nasty practice of white police who would round up black prostitutes and demand sex as a precondition for their release.
There is also Zeke Mphahlele, the revolutionary firebrand and supporter of the ANC who is the most insightful, but is unfortunately portrayed as a bit of a bore - he doesn't go to shebeens, is the complaint of one of his younger colleagues. Incidentally, he is one of only three or four of the characters in the play who have survived to date. He went into exile in the 1960s, joined the resistance and returned to the new South Africa as a successful writer.
Somewhere in between is the editor Syl Stein, regarded as a bit of a 'boy scout' by his black staff, who agues that 'we can inform but not campaign'. In reality Syl Stein had a fractious relationship with the owner of the magazine, Jim Bailey, whose priorities were balancing precariously between allowing Africans their own voice and the constant threat of a ban for publishing controversial material. He resigned as the editor when Bailey changed a picture he had chosen for the front page while he was away on a trip abroad.
Everything comes to a head when Nxumalo is found murdered, or 'assassinated' as his colleagues claim. All the underlying frustrations of working for a white owned/controlled journal come to the fore. Accusations of who was responsible fly in all directions and even the wimpish Stein is not spared. Can Themba's attempts at explanation and solutions so anger his colleagues that they all leave in disgust.
The play culminates in a stunt that Drum magazine became famous for which involves Can Temba (now given the opportunity to redeem himself) making a visit to a white church (where all sinners are welcome) and bets are made by his colleagues as to how long it will take before he is violently ejected.
In a recent interview Stein says that the question of who killed Nxumalo remains unsolved in the play. 'We never really discovered who killed him and the question isn't really directly answered, because we extended "Mr Drum" to all the staff, to all black people, because they were being killed by apartheid.'
It could be argued that the play is overlong at three hours, and the portrayal of Can Themba is unconvincing. But the play overcomes these shortfalls. This is a slice of history that should not be forgotten and is portrayed with sincerity and humour illustrating Syl Stein's fond regard for the staff of Drum.