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5 September, 2019

We know the horror before the show has even really begun.

If the purpose of art is to challenge ideology, then SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill delivers. This powerful piece of musical theatre uses a tiny cast of 14 to tell the story of a tragedy that took 616 mainly black lives to the bottom of a watery grave near the Isle of White in 1915. The genius of the production is we are told of the tragedy at the very beginning. We know the horror before the show has even really begun.

And yet, despite the tragic subject matter, the story unfolds with an abundance of good humour, vibrant singing, energetic dancing, clapping and whistling. We hear why the characters volunteered to travel from Cape Town to the battlefields of Flanders. We listen to their individual stories, their lust for adventure, their need for money, their genuine desire to fight alongside their British allies. We are treated to smatterings of Shakespeare, nods to the HMAS Pinafore, and a stirring rendition of Danny Boy, set against a backdrop of the glorious melodies of Zulu singing, drumming and clapping.

Staging, lighting, costumes and set design are deliberately pared down, allowing the multi talented ensemble to tell their stories in an honest, intimate way. They address the audience directly at times using humour to disarm and inform.

But here’s the rub. Despite being proud Zulu warriors, they are being transported to dig trenches for white soldiers. It is 1915 and racist ideology permeates their every move. Their vessel, the SS Mendi is struck by another British vessel in thick fog and that leads to the unfolding horror. If there is a poster child for Black Lives Matter, this is it. Go see it, hear the stories of the volunteers and ask yourself, why this chapter wasn’t taught in our history lessons at school.