Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
I sat down a few minutes early to the opening night of Coming Home, written by Athol Fugard, at Berkeley Rep and I read Madeleine Oldham’s article “A Scourge of Pandemic Proportions: HIV/AIDS in South Africa.” I was startled and humbled by the awfulness of the situation. Oldham writes, “HIV and AIDS ravaged societies around the globe in the 1990s, but nowhere did it hit harder than South Africa. Today, South Africa is thought to have the highest number of people living with HIV of any country in the world. Some of the staggering infection rates from statistics gathered in 2007 include:
- 12% of the total population
- 600,00 AIDS orphans
- 30% of pregnant women
- 33% of gay men
- 1 in 4 people ages 15-49
Researchers attribute South Africa’s dire situation to a number of factors. The disease feeds on poverty…” Oldham continues, “The government repeatedly refused to confront facts…” and “AIDS was dimissed early on as a ‘gay disease,’ so the government felt no need to respond.” I was dumbfounded.
I tried to comprehend these numbers, but I couldn’t. So I sat there, in a moment of silence, hoping that Coming Home would give me some sort of an answer or an understanding of what was happening in South Africa. It did, but on a very small level. Coming Home follows the life of Veronica (Roslyn Ruff) and her son, Mannetjie (Kohle T. Bolton – younger and Jaden Malik Wiggins – older). Ten years after running away to pursue her dreams of becoming a singer, Veronica returns home with her son to find an empty, dilapidated shack with a whole lot of memories. In the first part of Act I, she struggles to find the happiness in those memories, recounting stories about her father, Oupa Jonkers (Lou Ferguson) and reminiscing with her childhood friend, Alfred Witbooi (Thomas Silcott). While a bit slow, the audience is quietly faced with Veronica and Alfred’s day-to-day struggles of food, health and education – all things we take for granted everyday.
It’s not till the second half of Act I do we find out what’s really happening and why Veronica decided to come home. It’s five years later and her body is succumbing to HIV; it’s ravaging her enough that she can’t work or leave the house. She doesn’t want the villagers to know, so that they won’t fear of “catching” it from her son (though he is HIV-negative). As an audience, we start to get a glimpse on how HIV/AIDS is viewed in South Africa – there is clearly major misinformation out there about the disease. Veronica’s only friend, Alfred Witbooi, helps her to stay strong and promises to take care of Mannetjie by accepting Veronica’s proposal of marriage. (If Veronica died, unmarried, child services would have taken Mannetjie away.)
During Act II, while Veronica lays very sick in bed, Alfred and Mannetjie flush out their issues in their relationship. Again, a little slow, but it directly deals with their relationship struggles in “real-time”.
Roslyn Ruff’s raw and edgy portrayal of Veronica is magnificent. We see her enter with optimism for a new life, then struggle accepting her diseased body and eventually succumb to the heartache she has caused by her decisions in her life. You could feel her happiness, pain, love and heartache throughout the evening. Coming Home has a top-notch cast, with an incredible story that needs to be heard, but because of the pacing of Fugard’s script, I caught myself daydreaming. I continually had to reinvest myself into the story and it became a little wearisome. I wanted to know more about how HIV/AIDS is affecting South Africa as a nation, but realized that I had only learned very little about that from the actual production itself. I learned most of it a few minutes prior to curtain as I read the in-depth articles in the program.
But I’ll say it again: this is a story that needs to be seen and heard. Fugard’s story needs to be out there! The struggles of the HIV/AIDS in South Africa have not been erased, though little by little the government is recognizing the magnitude of issue. Oldham writes, “On December 1, 2009 President Zuma announced a new policy that all pregnant women and babies would have access to antiretroviral treatments. He also declared that he himself would get tested.” Hopefully, there’s hope in South Africa for a brighter future.
Prepare yourself for a sobering night of theatre that hits the very core of humanity.