Book reviews

28 October 2013

Filed under Book reviews

Colours: Forward

Racial and sexual prejudice invariably hurt and Wound; but these same malign forces can also inspire and stimulate, as this collection of short stories and plays by the Zimbabwe Writer and playwright Rory Kilelea demonstrates.

Each of his works springs from adversity, and all are stamped with Rory’s trademark: a combination of sharp observation, an ear for dialogue, and above all, an intuitive appreciation of the concerns of his characters, whether a white Rhodesian couple, beached by the tide of history, or a poignant account of a farmer seeking solace with a young black man.

Play, monologue, short story - all are the products of a skilled storyteller, but standing out is the monologue, Colours, a masterly portrayal of a prostitute which gives this book its title, and which I first saw at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2010.

Colours was part of the so-called “Fringe”, a programme that accompanies the official Festival, which for a glorious month makes the city the culture capital of the world. On reaching the play’s venue, atop the steep hill called the Mound, leading off Princes Street, I looked out, beyond the elegant Georgian New Town, across the Firth of Forth to the distant shores of Fife, and reflected on the serendipity that had marked the efforts to bring to the stage the production I was about to watch.

Above all, I recalled the happy coincidence of good fortune, which brought together Rory and the late Susie Smith, oxfam activist and anti-poverty campaigner.

Their common cause is the battle against Aids, both motivated by compassion for the victims, and sustained by their anger at the prejudice that surrounds a modern plague which has hit Africa especially hard.

The appearance at the Fringe of Colours was a tribute to the perseverance of its author; but were it not for Susie’s contribution, made in her name by a trust fund created in her memory, the financial hurdles could well have been too much, even for Rory.

So it seems fitting, then, to use this forward to pay tribute to a remarkable woman, as well as praise an exceptional play.

“If wars have their unknown warriors, whose sacrifice enlightens and inspires survivors,” began her obituary in the Financial Times, “then Susie Smith should be celebrated as an unknown general in the global battle against poverty”.

For three decades she fought for the poor - first working in Africa, and for the last ten years as a compassionate and inspirational counsellor at Oxfam, the Oxford-based international development agency.

The outcome of one campaign in particular, mounted by Susie in the late 1980s, changed the nature of the role of charities in aid and development. Africa’s crisis had been belatedly acknowledged, but the old charity laws restricted the operations of Oxfam. Action against third world debt, unfair trade rules and apartheid were deemed beyond the legitimate operation of development agencies, on the grounds that it contravened their charitable status.

Largely thanks to Susie, the law was amended and°a rejuvenated Oxfam emerged as an international force for change.

When Susie died in 2006 her friends and colleagues decided to honour her memory in a practical way; and with the support of Oxfam, setting up a prize fund, inviting essays or proposals which threw "fresh light on the consequences and impact of Aids in Africa.

For three years a panel of judges, chaired by Ann Grant, former UK high commissioner to South Africa, and including Susie’s daughter Sara, awarded an annual prize, which in 2009 was won by Colours.

The money was enough for Rory to look to an Edinburgh appearance, and the judges decided to make a contribution to the cost of production and thus help bring to fruition an outstanding Work.

And so it was on that August day I emerged from the theatre, moved by a stunning performance by Marcella, a native of Brazil, but such was the uncanny accuracy of her accent and her portrayal, she could have been born and bred in Harare, bringing the set alive with ghosts from the past.

I had just one quibble. The publicity flier described the play as a ‘raunchy’ account of ‘sex and survival in Africa’. But Colours, it seems to me, is not about sex, it is about love; and it is more about hope than survival. Surely no one can doubt the love the prostitute has for her long-buried boy friend, Danny, Whose grave she regularly visits? And surely their young daughter, who miraculously does not have Aids, represents hope?

Not that this difference of interpretation is critical.

For good writing encourages debate, whether Colours is about love or sex, hope or survival, is unimportant, as long it contributes to our understanding of the impact of Aids.

In the work of Rory Kilalea there is seldom the judgmental, never the glib, always realistic with a skilful evocation of period and place. Above all, he combines a dispassionate View of life around him with a celebration of resistance to the cruel hardships with which Zimbabweans are only too familiar.

Michael Holman was brought up in Gweru, Zimbabwe, and began writing for the Financial Times in 1976. From 1984 to 2002 he was Africa editor of the FT. He now writes novels. The latest, Dizzy Worms, the third in a satirical trilogy set in the fictional African state of Kuwisha, was published by Polygon in June 2010.