The Head and the Load Review: Colonized Africans during World War I

Many events have been marking the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I, including several on New York stages – among them, the solo play “Private Peaceful,” the “docudrama”/concert “All is Calm”…and, now, an unusual and startling hybrid piece, “The Head and The Load,” running for little more than a week at the Park Avenue Armory, where it uses a cacophony of words and images, music and dance to bring us the war as it played out in Africa.

In 1914, when World War I began, seven European nations had colonized all but two nations (Ethiopia and Liberia) on the continent of Africa.  During the war, the British, French and German colonizers employed as many as two million Africans as porters and carriers. The title of the piece, conceived by South African artist William Kentridge, comes from a Ghanaian  proverb, “the  head  and  the  load  are  the troubles  of  the  neck.” It is a bitter truth that those African noncombatants took it in the neck, suffering the brunt of the casualties – perhaps hundreds of thousands of deaths. Near the end of “The Head and the Load,” a projection along the back wall of the stage, which runs the entire width of the Armory’s cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall, presents a close-up of a roster of names and numbers and causes of death –- typhus, yellow fever, exhaustion, etc. A group of performers stand on stage, their crisply delineated shadows looming like spirits over the roster of death, as they sing a mournful African song.

Such powerful moments are interspersed throughout the 90-minute bombardment of a show that presents history as chaos.

“Can one find the truth in the fragmented and incomplete? Can one think about history as collage, rather than narrative?” Kentridge asks these questions in a note in the program; we know his answer is yes, because of the show he has created. The artist sees a connection between the war and Dadaism, the avant-garde art movement that began in 1916, and embodied nonsense as a commentary on the breakdown of norms brought about by the battling.  And so “The Head and the Load” features – among many examples — “Frantz Fanon  translated  into  siSwati; Tristan  Tzara  in  isiZulu; Wilfred  Owen  in  French  and  dog-barking”….as well as Setswana’s proverbs and phrases from a handbook of military drills. (Some of this gets English subtitles; most doesn’t)

And that’s just the speeches. Composers  Philip  Miller  and  Thuthuka Sibisi mix African war chants and folk songs with a German waltz and the English national anthem, as well as pastiches of European composers like the impressionist Ravel and the expressionist Schoenberg.

Individual performers — a caricature of a French imperialist, an African soldier dancing in a kind of death march, a solo viola player (Mario Gotoh), a vocalist (Nhlanhla Mahlangu) with an old-fashioned Victrola atop her head – put some of this over, but “The Head and the Load” is mostly a mammoth group effort, performed by African singers and dancers, and The Knights, a Grammy-nominated orchestral collective based in Brooklyn.

The show, which debuted at the Tate Modern Museum in London last year, is also an explosion of images. Huge subtitles abruptly projected onto the back wall look like the thought balloons in comic books – especially when the subtitle is simply “Kaboom,” but even during the more elaborate disquisitions on forced labor as standard business practice.  A box springs open revealing a makeshift war room, while the projection of a map of Africa is defaced and cut up. There are historical films of the actual African soldiers of the era – and film of African rulers of the modern era, one of them dressed like a king.  In a kind of shadow play, a procession of cast members  carry various burdens on their heads, which are projected as shadows on the back wall  – undefined bundles, entire ships, even (oddly) faces of prominent African-American heroes like Paul Robeson.

A look at the program (I recommend you do so in advance) offers a brief essay on historical context, and indicates that the show has 20 scenes, each with a title, divvied up into three acts.. The first scene is entitled “Manifestos,”  and begins with rants on behalf of  war, independence, and colonialism. What’s on the page suggests a structure and meaning that prove largely elusive on stage to those of us without a grounding in the history of Africa or of World War I. Without such grounding, one’s attention might occasionally drift.  Yet it’s worth it anyway, because a story so full of horror should not be lost to history, and because (as with most of what I’ve seen at the Park Avenue Armory over the last couple of years) it’s being presented with such theatrical audacity.

Click on any photograph by Stephanie Berger to see it enlarged.

The Head and the Load
Concept and  Director: William  Kentridge
Composer: Philip Miller
Co-composer/Music Director: Thuthuka  Sibisi
Projection Design: Catherine  Meyburgh
Choreography by Gregory  Maqoma, Costume Design by Greta  Goiris, Set  Design by Sabine  Theunissen, Lighting  Design by Urs  Schönebaum, Sound Design by Mark  Grey Video  Editing  and  Compositing by Janus  Fouché, Zana  Marovic and Catherine  Meyburgh, Cinematography by Duško  Marović ,Orchestration by Michael  Atkinson,  Philip  Miller
Actors: Mncedisi Shabangu,  Hamilton  Dlamini,Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Luc  De  Wit
Featured Vocalists  and  Performers: Joanna Dudley,  Nhlanhla  Mahlangu,  Ann Masina,  Bham Ntabeni, Sipho  Seroto,  N`Faly  Kouyate  (kora), Tlale Makhene  (percussion)  and  Vincenzo Pasquariello (piano)

Dancers: Gregory Maqoma,  Julia  Zenzie  Burnham, Thulani  Chauke, Xolani  Dlamini,Nhlanhla

Ensemble Vocalists: Mhlaba Buthelezi,  Ayanda  Eleki,  Grace Magubane,  Ncokwane  Lydia Manyama, Caroline  Modiba,  Tshegofatso  Moeng, Mapule  Moloi,  Lindokuhle  Thabede

The Knights:
Michael  P.  Atkinson  (French horn),  Sam  Budish  (percussion), Shawn  Conley  (bass),  Christina Courtin  (violin),  Mario  Gotoh (viola),  Richard  Harris  (trombone), Colin  Jacobson  (violin),  Eric Jacobson  (cello),  Nathan  Koci (accordion),  Jean  Laurenz  (trumpet), Andrew  Madej  (tuba),  David Nelson  (trombone),  Alex  Sopp (flute),  Caitlin  Sullivan  (cello)

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $40 – $90

The Head and the Load will be on stage through December 15, 2018


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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