Yael Farber aces her efforts at bringing race to the forefront of modern theater audiences and with "Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise," as with other productions helmed by the native South African, the race belongs to the swift.
A quiet riot of a roiling piece in which South African actors stand apart on stage blistered in their battle over apartheid, "Amajuba" ambitiously mixes song, sound and spirit in stories that sear the soul.
The messages travel well; latest stop for its intercontinental interconnection is the Harold Prince Theater of Penn's Annenberg Center, where it is being staged with an energetic ensemble cast through Sunday, Jan. 28.
As founder of the theatrical Farber Foundry, Farber forages for insight, meting out morsels of mind-numbing, heart-rending recollections of rages against injustice. Her actors command the simple stage with complex quandaries and questions of why one race would quest for success at the other's expense.
Farber knows the terrifying turf well. As a Jew raised South African, she hangs on to history for some insight into how heels grind mercilessly into the hopes of the oppressed, and how the sweat of Soweto stains and stings with a familiar stench.
"As a Jew … when you do grow up with a strong sense of injustice and travesty in the culture of your own past, it gives you a special sensibility," says this special director who hails from Johannesburg, but uses the stage as her international and iconoclastic home. "Many [Jews] see a particular heritage as belonging only to ourselves, but my belief is in developing its empathy to extend to people in communities who suffer also. This unique position has informed my work."
And if she's been formed and shaped by a shifting history, then audiences are that much the richer for what she brings to the table — and the tableau.
"It is such a complex question," she says, pondering the prejudices she faced herself of antagonism and anti-Semitism early on. "It was subtle but I felt its presence in many ways."
Yet the hatred she may have felt was colored by a one-sided palette of pain; the blacks of her nation felt the hue of hate even more. "Whatever I experienced was small, and paled in significance" to apartheid, she notes.
Apathy to apartheid is apparent as some believe that the "problem" has been solved for South Africans with the establishment of a new regime and blacks in majority rule. But since when, asks Farber, do ghosts go away so quickly that they evaporate without eviscerating and taking with them shards of a shattered nation's soul?
Apartheid a part of a permanent past? "People often want immediate gratification," muses Farber. "But the reality is when you take several hundred years of colonization, terror" and all that that entails, the tail often tags along no matter where the head may go.
As fabulous as Farber is — and global acclaim and honors have cloaked her since those college days at the University of Witwatersrand, before graduating to the klieg lights of Lincoln Center in New York as well as a guest artist stint with Mabou Mines — she is no overnight sensation. The sensations she has served up help her understand that her undertakings take time to have an impact.
Time was when she saw the works of Barney Simon, a major South African director of distinction whose Jewish roots also served to root out injustices in what he saw.
"He is the person who impacted me the most as a director," she says of the literary lion. "I felt like his theater was the only sane place to be in an insane world."
Capetown as a cape of comfort? Only in the sense that it gave credence and craft "to the storm inside me," she says.
Unleashing those reins of rage is her barometer of what she does now as director: "I don't know if those storms ever go out; the important thing is to channel them."
Cyclone alert: Apartheid has taken on new sinister shadings in recent weeks, blackened in spirit as it has been by a calumny by a former American president who has juxtaposed the jinxed term with the Jewish state.
As a white Jewish South African, continents away from the controversy cooked up by Jimmy Carter with his new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, in which the past peanut farmer from Georgia goes goobers, accusing Israel of racism, how does Farber feel about her homeland's hateful history being hijacked? Does appropriating apartheid know no boundaries?
"It is fashionable to make comparisons these days," replies the director, allowing that "there is a value in comparison" — forcing any nation to confront its policies is a metaphorical mitzvah — but, in this case, it's an act of "reductivism." "Israel is a situation unique to itself."
And she finds her own unique sense of self and fulfillment in theater. Still, it's not clear skies she seeks out; it's the clouds that cluster before the burst of sunshine that blinds all to how a world works wobbly on a daily basis without spinning off its axis. The storm precedes her — no matter what port she pulls into.
"I still seek work where a community has that storm; I look for the wound," she says.
And theater is her bloodline. "Because art," reasons Farber, "makes sense out of pain."