We all are aware that Africa is the birthplace of humanity. Archaeologists keep finding new evidence of this. Now, even the arts remind us of this reality, with an original theatre piece – The Cradle of Humanity – work of South African performer Stephen Cohen. The Cradle of Humanity was first performed in Europe at the Danae Festival in Milan last November.
Only two performers climbed on the stage. Cohen himself, half naked and wearing only a corset of sort and whitened with a serious dose of white powder, and an old San lady wearing only an imaginative loin cloth. There were many objects: a measuring rod of the kind used by Lombrosian ethnologists working for the various empires; a bow, with the small arrows used by the San in their nomadic life; a small table with a human cranium, the head of a monkey, small trees, diamonds and a huge plastic bowl ball in which Cohen went to hide only to be taken out by the old woman, almost like a child that is born; a sort of hat- loudspeaker which was placed on the head of the woman, a large stuffed monkey which the man placed before him mimicking a sexual use or oppression and violence; handcuffs and chains, animal paws, symbols of the servitude and slavery the colonial governments imposed on Africans; a screen and record player with images and sounds of the San (formerly known as Bushmen). Among the elements that contributed to the performance, allusions and gestures referring to a nonexistent spaceship which brought new human beings from other planets, another reference to the colonial descent on astonished and unsuspecting people.
In various interviews by Stephen Cohen published in local newspaper, we came to know that the woman on stage was Nomsa Dhlamini, 91, who raised him when he was an infant in South Africa, as often happened – and sometimes still happen – in well to do families who entrust their children to a nanny.
Nomsa’s body on the stage, so true and real, with its amber in colour, so true and real, and the august shape of old age, was in itself a beauty and a document of reality, against which the Cohen’s body seemed powdered and false. The performance moved from stage to stage without a clear cut narrative. Yet, it was consistent in referring to humanity’s first steps and to the racist policies people were subjected to by colonial powers. Stephen Cohen also gave a short performance as a drag queen.
Contemporary theatre is making much use of the body, in this the show was not a surprise. However, the performance of Stephen Cohen and Nomsa Dhlamini has the merit to incarnate the unspeakable simplicity of an ancient body, more than a simply old one, a body solemn and full of expression: a performance that led the public to a silence full of admiration and awe.