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‘Cadre’ a sweeping saga amid Apartheid, post-Apartheid eras

Young Gregory (Omphile Molusi) young Sas(Lillian Tshabalala) dance merrily Chicago Shakespeare Theater's world-premiere producti'Cadre.'  |  Michael Brosilow photo

Young Gregory (Omphile Molusi) and young Sasa (Lillian Tshabalala) dance merrily in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's world-premiere production of "Cadre." | Michael Brosilow photo

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When: Through Feb. 23

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater Upstairs, 800 E. Grand

Tickets: $20

Info: (312) 595-5600;

Run time: 80 minutes, with no intermission

Updated: February 24, 2013 2:48PM

Theater, and the human stories it can tell, became a crucial tool for teaching the world about the horrors of apartheid, the brutal system of racial segregation enforced in South Africa from 1948-1994. The plays of Athol Fugard, and the work of many others at the pioneering Market Theatre of Johannesburg, were almost always about the personal costs of the system rather than outright political dogma, even if politics was never far from the surface.

That tradition continues in the work of Omphile Molusi, the impassioned young actor, writer and director whose latest show, the intense and intensely moving 80-minute “Cadre,” is receiving its world premiere at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. With writing that is direct and unadorned, acting that is immediate, visceral and unaffected, and an almost childlike physicality with a music all its own, “Cadre” casts a spell at once guileless and sophisticated.

Unfolding from 1965 to 1994, “Cadre,” inspired by the life of Molusi’s uncle, looks at a less familiar aspect of the apartheid era — a struggle usually told in terms of a minority white, Afrikaner-dominated National Party as the oppressors, countered by the black ANC (African National Congress), leading the struggle for liberation and winning the first democratic elections in 1994.

But such situations (as we see in the Middle East right now), are never so simple. Splitting from the ANC was the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), which believed the South African government should consist only of black people. And Molusi’s story is about two brothers tragically caught up in that part of the movement. It might well be unfamiliar even to the generation of black South Africans who grew up in the post-apartheid era. (THAT audience will be able to see the show at the Market Theatre beginning March 18.)

Molusi (acclaimed here for his 2010 solo show, “Itsoseng”) plays Gregory, who is a young boy in 1965. His older brother (played by the expertly morphing Sello Motloung), has joined the radical PAC group, much to the chagrin of the boys’ Christian father (also played by Motloung). The thought that Gregory might die by following in his older brother’s footsteps terrifies and enrages the man. Gregory’s mother (the astonishing Lillian Tshabalala) can only look on helplessly.

Gregory develops a crush on little Sasha (Tshabalala, who can change age in seconds), with whom he swears lifelong allegiance when her family is forced to move. Then, when his older brother is killed, Gregory runs off and joins the PAC. Before long he is caught delivering messages, brutally beaten and imprisoned for 11 years. Once rescued, he begins work as a double agent for PAC, “serving” South Africa’s white leader, Pieter Botha (“The Big Crocodile,” played ideally by Motloung), and learning he must “kill or be killed” to keep his cover.

All this storytelling (in English) unfolds on a stage decorated only with sheets hung from poles where, in league with his fellow actors, Molusi, a performer of enormous heat, warmth and soulfulness, keeps us riveted. A bit of artful shadowplay, and songs sung in Setswana, Zulu and Xhosa are the only other things needed.

“What is freedom without love?,” Gregory asks when all is lost. No doubt many young revolutionaries today are asking the same question.

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