Some of the most frightening ghosts are not ectoplasms floating through haunted houses, but the spirits of dark ideas that return to threaten continued harm. It’s the ghost of South African apartheid that haunts the characters in M.E.H. Lewis’ “Burying the Bones,” which opens the 2013–14 season of Milwaukee’s In Tandem Theatre Co.
At the center of the play, a Wisconsin premiere, is the character Mae (Malkia Stampley), who seeks the truth behind the disappearance of her husband James (Di’Monte Henning), a member of the African National Congress. Against the advice of her older sister Cassandra (Bria Cloyd), Mae visits the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, set up by the South African government to address the crimes of apartheid. There she faces Gideon (Mark Corkins), an unrepentant Afrikaner policeman who has his own definition of justice.
The play’s power as a character study and its conflicting points of view are the qualities that drew In Tandem to “Burying the Bones,” says company co-founder Chris Flieller, who directs the production.
“(The play) will surely toy with the audience’s alliances and sympathy toward the characters as the action unfolds,” Flieller says. “Secondarily, it’s rich in cultural references and does a beautiful job of transporting one to another place and time.”
Like most dramas set in South Africa, the shadow of apartheid looms large in this story, which occurs two years after James’ disappearance. But the political overtones are a framework for deeper issues, the director says.
“It is more a universal examination of human behaviors in times and places of extreme stress, and (it) speaks to all of us on a deeply human, rather than an overly political level,” Flieller says. “In that respect it is not much different from (South African playwright Athol) Fugard’s better works when they ascend from the topical to the literary.”
Unlike Fugard, ”Burying the Bones” author Lewis comes from Evanston, Ill., and lacks the personal experience that might have informed the play at certain levels. But reviews of past productions credit outstanding character development and a well-honed narrative for helping to carry what are essentially the remnants of a love story.
“There are beautifully tender moments between Mae and her husband, both in flashback and in real time when James is not there physically,” Flieller says. “There are wonderfully ironic moments in the scenes between Gideon and Cassandra as the two discover they may have more in common that either of them would want to admit.”
Although it’s debatable whether James appears onstage as a ghost or a figment of his wife’s psyche, “Burying the Bones” still taps the South African spiritual tradition mandating burial of the dead. Fulfilling that tradition has thus far eluded Mae. But the ghost of her dead husband is not necessarily the most powerful spirit haunting the play, the director says.
“I believe the most trenchant ‘ghost’ … is the notion that history gets to be revised by the victors, and ‘truth’ becomes malleable, a tool that can serve as both a cushion and a bludgeon,” Flieller says.
In Tandem’s production of “Burying the Bones” runs Oct. 4–27.
In Tandem Theatre Company, 628 N. 10th St., Milwaukee, opens its 2013–14 season with the Wisconsin premiere of “Burying the Bones,” a play set in the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa. Call 414-271-1371 or visit www.intandemtheatre.org.
“Burying the Bones” is first of five shows that comprise the 2013–14 season. The remaining productions include:
• “A Cudahy Caroler Christmas” returns for another season of frivolity and all the favorite carols, including those about beer and bowling, Nov. 29–Jan. 5.
• “The Eight: Reindeer Monologues” concerns depositions against Santa when one of the tiny flyers accuses the Jolly Old Elf of sexual harassment in this humorous, adult-themed fundraiser for In Tandem, Dec. 9–16.
• “Chesapeake” offers a one-man “tail” of politics, performance art and the kidnapping of a beloved dog, Feb. 21–March 16.
• “1959 Pink Thunderbird: Laundry and Bourbon/Lone Star” includes two one-act plays about the same characters in the same small Texas town, April 25–May 18.