Author: Chris Haydon, October 26 2015 - Disability theatre company Freewheelers Theatre will perform their latest stage production "AMANDLA!" (Power to the People) on 3rd December 2015.
The "AMANDLA!" of disabled actors and dancers, both white and black, are supported by five members of staff and volunteers and the artistic director who is "treading the boards". Cerebral palsy, autism, spina bifida, blindness, partial sight, epilepsy and learning difficulty are all present on stage too. The acting company membersare seated on two sides of the stage throughout the two acts and integrate with the action at all times via vocal, percussive and signing gestures. African drumming and song play a part.

The play tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s remarkable life - "The Struggle is my Life", he famously said. From his innocent tribal boyhood, his education at the hands of Methodist missionary establishments, to his adult status as a freedom fighter, and on then through the long Robben Island years - when the likes of Steve Biko, and two white men, journalist Donald Woods and priest Father Trevor Huddleston were key names - to the peak of his fame as President securing reconciliation for South Africa.

Re-imagined by the Freewheelers’ integrated company of disabled and non-disabled performers, this two-act tale of struggle, hope and inspiration finds a new resonance with performers who themselves understand ‘struggle’ on a daily basis. "AMANDLA!" uses drama, dance, video and fine art - to interpret the dreadful Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the bloody rivalry between Zulus and the ANC [African National Congress] thirty years later, media, projected fine art - from internationally renowned Rachel Gadsden, and music - featuring live African drumming, to tell a multimedia story that if it had not actually happened would not be believed.

More on the play's development

The Freewheelers Theatre company of disabled performers and I are approaching our performance date as we near the end of our long walk. We set off over two years ago as a group of over thirty, largely disabled but a handful of non-disabled people, gathered under the banner of Freedom. The Freewheelers’ integrated company are joined by an artist Rachel Gadsden, a filmmaker, and an actor, all three disabled practitioners, to tell the story of Nelson Mandela’s remarkable life.

Character development

Surtitles [script availble above the stage], audio description, BSL [British Sign Language] signing - these are layers to be added on the night to the drama we have been building together. That drama spans an incredible journey and brings a range of arts and performing arts alongside one another.

There are three Mandelas now in "AMANDLA!" not two, which was the tally when I wrote last year. [Click here to access Chris Haydon's earlier blog on creating this theatre piece: Creating "AMANDLA!" among the Freewheelers] I have added a Young Mandela to the Old Mandela of Act Two and a dancing Spirit Mandela who accompanies his corporeal self, young and old, through the two acts of the ‘Long Walk To Freedom’. This dancing spirit might appear on Mandela’s adventure as a young man breaking away from tribal roots to journey hundreds of miles to Johannesburg, or as a quiet companion to the Robben Island prisoner during those long years.

In addition to the three Mandelas, there is the role of the much loved English born priest, Father Trevor Huddleston in "AMANDLA!". Another medium threaded into the production is video - of a daughter of a High Court judge under the Apartheid regime and sister to a member of the ANC Government. This documentary video introduces Gabby, who tells of her dilemmas and shame, at having lived, sometimes blindly, through the latter years of white oppression. She gives moving accounts of family relationships, strained and painful as they were.

Rehearsals to performance

We began first dance rehearsals in autumn 2013 and showed a selection of those scenes in July 2014. They were well received, especially the choreographed interpretation of the terrible Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. Following a few "taster sessions" with key characters in Spring and Summer 2015, formal rehearsals with actors began in earnest in September. Our Arts Council funded performance for Thursday 3rd December 2015 at the Leatherhead Theatre in Surrey.

This multimedia performance coincides almost precisely with the anniversary of Mandela’s passing (5th December 2013), leaving us to ponder what we might do - for our own ‘long walk to freedom is not yet ended’. This story, had it not actually happened, would not be believed.

“Do we fall from the sky like a shooting star
Or rise from the earth like a tree?”

So challenges the soloist to us all as “AMANDLA!” launches into its climactic Finale.

“AMANDLA!, Mandela, Mandala,
  AMANDLA!, Mandela, Mandala,
  Through Struggle to Freedom.”

The company chorus sings in response, sensing opportunity, oneness, and the new world that has been created for them through the endeavours of Nelson Mandela and all - black and white, Huddleston Woods and millions of souls outside the black communities who stood in solidarity with their black brothers and sisters, outside embassies, in squares, on marches, over the years and decades - who all worked towards the same goal.

We acknowledge what Madiba [South African name showing affection for and affiliation with Mandela] did for us; now it is our turn. So what will we do?