Author: Chris Haydon, June 12 2014 - It is now some months since we considered whether I might be able to submit a blog to your project about a 'Mandela' production I was to create for a disabled theatre company. This is the Freewheelers Theatre Company, an inclusive company for disabled and able-bodied performers alike. Its work covers dance, drama and film, and it is based at Leatherhead in Surrey, to the south of London. [United Kingdom]
I directed a group of members of Freewheelers in an 80 minute film which took three and a half years to make. It is a comedy drama about a care home which is run by some dodgy disabled people. The team had a ball making this, inventing characters and storyline and working through improvisation - to avoid having to learn lines (which is not their strong suit)!
Following that film, the Mandela production is taking shape and in July we preview a selection of scenes at a public performance at Epsom in Surrey. The working title is "Amandla!".
My starting idea was to link the struggle of these disabled people, with whom I work on a regular basis, to the struggles of the black peoples of South Africa whom Nelson Mandela served.
The disabled performers - actors/dancers - are adults and offer a wide variety of abilities and capacities. Fascinatingly, they offer little in the way of ego and consequently are a delight to work with.
Our story links together Nelson Mandela with a number of key people intersecting with him on his journey from childhood to world statesman: there are the reflections of the elderly Wendy Woods, widow of journalist Donald Woods, as she lived out her final days at a hospice in Esher, also in Surrey. Esher could not be further culturally from Umtata than the Morning Star; there will be Trevor Huddleston; Steve Biko will make his appearance; police chief Kruger, too; and Winnie Mandela. We also have a tribal meeting of the Thembu villagers of his boyhood, are confronted by a praise singer whom the young Nelson was shocked and inspired by at school, perform a choreographed impression of the infamous Sharpeville massacre...
The representation of Mandela himself will be by two performers - a young dancer - who, on his day, has a splendid energy, vital, irrepressible, male - and an older actor of real ability - a woman who has just delivered a marvellous performance in an Alan Bennett monologue and effortlessly conveys the simple but powerful human dignity that so typified Mandela in his later years. Mandela spoke movingly about disability, and, I feel sure, would be comfortable with having his spirit evoked by a splendid disabled actress. Anyway, I also feel strongly that there is no harm in challenging people's assumptions. Underneath the skin are we not all the same, deserving of the same human rights, possessed of the same values and aspirations?
My great hope is to complete building this two-act play in the next twelve months. It will incorporate dance, video and drama. Artwork for projection over the stage is being created by a member of the company.
We found a way of bridging Mandela's story with their own world experience and that was by asking them to imagine that suddenly they would not be allowed to attend Freewheelers any more, that their own freedom was being curtailed and the company was being closed down. Suggested responses ran from barricading themselves inside the building, to burning it down! There was passion in plenty.
The inspiration of Mandela's extraordinary life story reaches round the entire world and across all its peoples.
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Image credit: Ava de Souza took this photo of dancer and artist Rachel Mold, a long term member of Freewheelers Theatre Company and a Spina Bifida sufferer.