Some plays solicit a critical double standard. The South African actor-playwright John Kani’s post-apartheid Nothing But the Truth concerns the conflict among Sipho, his daughter, Thando, who suffered with him through apartheid, and his niece Mandisa, who, like her father, Themba, had an easier life in London. Hardworking Sipho, the family’s financial mainstay, is an assistant librarian always passed by for promotion. Brother Themba, a firebrand orator, popular hero, and parents’ favorite, was also a parasite and serial seducer of other men’s women and wives. He has just died in exile, and Mandisa has brought back his ashes for burial in Port Elizabeth.
Kani has learned from his mentor, Athol Fugard (who, previously, learned from Ibsen and Chekhov), and produced a boulevard comedy–melodrama perfectly tailored to Johannesburg’s needs, but less suited to ours. Decently staged by Janice Honeyman, and dedicatedly acted by Kani, Warona Seane, and Esmeralda Bihl, the story of an elderly, repressed, black South African’s awakening self-assertion is for you if your Upper West Side liberal heart thrills to, and your knees jerk to, such things. But if you are anything like a hard-hearted Upper East Side Republican, Reader, pass by!
The Story, by Tracey Scott Wilson, was inspired by the saga of Janet Cooke, a Washington Post reporter who cooked up a sensational tale for which she got a Pulitzer Prize, only to have it promptly revoked. Wilson, a black woman, sympathetically makes her black heroine as much a dupe as a cheat. But in the play, which suffers from delusions of innovation, at least two conversations are almost always simultaneously crisscrossing in space and time, with often identical words, in different senses, repeated in unison or antiphonally, defying comprehension. Double casting, muddy direction by Loretta Greco, and inadequate stage design by Robert Brill pile up further confusion. The acting tends to be either hysterical or laid back into supineness, with often sloppy diction. But subsequent reading of the play clarifies little and amounts to less, merely confirming Wilson’s pretensions and misguidedness.