Tragedy relived with SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill at NST City

Nuffield Southampton Theatres continues its programme of remembering World War I with the world premiere of Fred Khumalo’s SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill from the acclaimed Cape Town-based, Isango Ensemble.

Dubbed the Black Titanic, the sinking of SS Mendi was one of the worst maritime disasters in the 20th century in UK waters.

Part of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s official arts programme for the First World War centenary, the production commemorates an untold tragedy that took place off the coast of Southampton.

Fred Khumalo

Prior to rehearsals beginning Samuel Hodges, director of Nuffield Southampton Theatres, will visit Cape Town where the SS Mendi began its journey.

Mark Dornford-May directs the production which opens at NST City on July 4, with previews from June 29 and runs until July 14.

January 1917, 823 South African men boarded the SS Mendi in Cape Town, volunteers for the British Army bound for the Western Front and, through a tragic twist of fate, Pitso Motaung finds himself aboard.

Months later, the ship sails off the coast of Southampton. Heavy pre-dawn fog shrouds the impending disaster.

The collision comes with such force the SS Mendi sinks in minutes. By the time rescue arrives it is too late for most.

Paris, 1958. Two men are dead in a restaurant, attacked by the head waiter Pitso Motaung. Dark memories etched in Pitso’s mind are resurfacing decades later to devastating effect.

Samuel Hodges

Director of Nuffield Southampton Theatres, Samuel Hodges said: “It’s a real privilege to be working with a company of the calibre of Isango Ensemble on this previously untold story from Southampton’s past.

“For a story of this magnitude to have been whitewashed from the history books beggars belief and we’re proud to be developing the world premiere, continuing NST’s commitment to telling local stories of national and international significance”.

Jenny Waldman, Director of 14-18 NOW, said: “We are delighted to be commissioning Isango Ensemble for this powerful work about an untold tragedy.

“This new production will connect today’s audiences to the lost lives and histories from 100 years ago. SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is a highlight of our final 14-18 NOW season, in which we continue to engage people in the centenary through the lens of art”.

Fred Khumalo is the author of the novels Bitches Brew, which was a joint winner of the 2006 European Union Literary Award, and Seven Steps to Heaven.

His memoir, Touch My Blood, was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Prize for Non-fiction in 2007, and his most recent book, #ZuptasMustFall and Other Rants, was published in 2016.

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