In February 1917, the SS Mendi, carrying more than 800 souls to the Western Front, was struck by another ship and sank into the ocean.
Just 11 miles off the coast of the Isle of Wight, 646 men, mostly black and mostly volunteers, drowned.
The little-known tragedy was recently explored in Fred Khumalo’s excellent Dancing the Death Drill, and it’s this novel that serves as inspiration for this outstanding piece of choral music and theatre, from Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble.
Inventive, powerful, and at times cut through with a rather dark sense of humour, SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is a staggeringly brilliant piece, led by a talented and engaging cast.
Speaking as part of a predominantly white audience, it’s pointedly uncomfortable to watch at times, particularly as individual tribal songs morph into a homogenous God Save The King, and as Henry W. Stump, master of the Darro, the ship that hit the doomed troopship, paints over the words SS Mendi in a quite literal white-washing of history.
But that’s exactly the point – the crew are dancing their death drill; they’re telling their story.
All we have to do is watch and listen. Racism, tribal factions, injustice, and the ever-looming shadow of the British Empire are part and parcel of this stunning lament to a historical tragedy that has for too long been denied a place alongside the Titanics and Lusitanias of history.
A fine example of the wonderful international work that Brisbane Festival can bring to our city, the audience’s enthusiastic standing ovation told its own story – now go see it, and let the Isango Ensemble tell theirs.