CAMBRIDGE -- Toward the end of "Nothing But the Truth," the play's main character declares, "A man is much more than the worst thing he's ever done." We might add, a play is much more than the worst things about it.
Both the author and the speaker of the quote is John Kani, an actor-writer who molded "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead" and "The Island" with Athol Fugard and whose "Nothing But the Truth," centering on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating human rights abuses between 1960 and 1994, is the last fully-staged production in the American Repertory Theatre's highly successful South African Festival.
But this is no Judgment at Johannesburg. Kani is more interested in where South Africa, and where South African theater, goes from here. That being the case, "Nothing But the Truth" is not the purely political play it seems to be at first. Rather it marks an attempt to meld the political with the personal. The politics of apartheid still informs South African theater, but it doesn't limit it.
In tracing the reaction of Sipho Makhaya to the death of his brother, a hero of the South African resistance who died in England, Kani asks what is heroism in life as in politics? And what is betrayal?
Kani sets the stage by having the daughter of Sipho's brother bring her father's ashes back to South Africa from England where he has lived and where the daughter, Mandisa, has become part of the swinging scene. Sipho's own daughter, Thando, is torn between her devotion to her father and tradition on the one hand and her fascination with her newfound relative's freewheeling ways on the other.
The problem is that for the better part of the first hour, this seems like fairly standard fare. It's like a South African "Awake and Sing!" in which the younger generation yearns to break free of the older's strictures. It's interesting that the battle is being waged in South Africa instead of North America, but "interesting"doesn't make for great theater.
For all that, Kani's play does eventually get grounded in rich theatrical soil, even if it never soars. When Sipho, an assistant librarian, tells his daughter and niece the family secrets and admits to his own frustrations with life after as well as during apartheid, the play's title starts resonating on several levels.
The truth shall set you free? Well, yes, but it's going to do some damage, too. "Nothing But the Truth," which began life in 2002 in South Africa's famed Market Theatre, deals with the daunting challenge of facing the truth, but its greatest success is reminding us about the necessity of moving on after facing the truth.
Kani as an actor plays very much within himself, which seems at first overly stiff. By the end of the play, though, he has given us a fully formed character without resorting to histrionics. Esmeralda Bihl is effective as the niece with attitude, but it's Warona Seane whose acting is the most captivating onstage.
In her we can see the whole future of a country taking shape. Her brother had been killed by the forces of apartheid and her father has been grievously wounded. But Thando is going out to meet a South Africa with new spirit that includes both a sense of excitement and apprehension.
Maybe 50 years from now "Nothing But the Truth" will seem horribly dated. For now, Kani makes it possible for us to share in the spirit of the play, just as the ART has made it possible over the last month to share in the spirit of a new South Africa.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.