They are not men because they have no names
They are not soldiers because they have no numbers
You don’t call them, you count them
—From The Head and the Load, quoting a Portuguese World War I soldier about Africans in that war
In fact, the number of native Africans killed in the so-called Great War cannot even be counted, only estimated, because so few records were kept about them. African civilians who died because their European colonial rulers were adversaries likely number a million. In addition, perhaps 30,000 combatants and 300,000 impressed “carriers,” human beasts of burden, lost their lives. European troops literally worked these porters to death, even receiving such guidelines as “after 20 days, the carriers are of no use.”
Ignored in the history books, these unnamed casualties and their abuse by colonialists are the focus of South African artist/director William Kentridge’s riveting, huge-scale work, The Head and the Load, at Park Avenue Armory, Dec. 4-16. This 90-minute gesamtkunstwerk—theatre, opera, dance, art installation, and Dadaist event—comes to life on a stage that’s 180 feet long (more than half the length of a football field), 40 feet high, and 32 feet deep, constructed specially at the Armory. Nearly 50 actors, musicians, and dancers create evolving images and soundscapes, with so much simultaneous action on such a long stage that it is impossible to take it all in. But all the elements come together into a blistering—and bizarrely exhilarating—presentation of Europe’s colonial imposition on Africa as not only barbaric and catastrophic but also sense-shatteringly absurd.
The gigantic back wall, covered with military tarp, is a canvas for projections of Kentridge’s stunning, shifting images. Many are his signature charcoal drawings and low-tech animations, shot frame by frame as he draws, rubs out, and redraws. These pictures range from stage-wide junglescapes (or goldmine-blasted vistas or dark fields dotted with white crosses), to mammoth closeups of bandaged or broken heads, to a gallery of lovely birds, soon shot to bits. Other projections show chalk-on-blackboard maps of Africa or colored atlas maps cut up with scissors and rearranged, much as the colonial powers wrestled to reorder their cash-cow African “possessions.” (Germany’s territories were distributed to the victors after the war.)
Some of the most startling images are shadows of the onstage performers that expand from near life-size to gigantic as the people casting them move closer to or farther from strong lights between the audience and the stage. At times, these shadows mix with filmed projections to create complex, overlapping pictures. One such scene shows a seemingly infinite procession of 20- to 30-foot-high figures (the live performers circle back and rejoin the trek again and again) on Kentridge’s changing landscape. Primarily carriers, the procession also includes soldiers, brass players, and others. Just above their heads the performers hold large, unreadable cutouts, which when silhouetted on the wall reveal as mainly war machinery: cannons, vintage airplanes, assortments of gears, pipes, wood, and miscellany.
One pair of “carriers” lug a full ship: Two warships actually were dismantled in Cape Town and moved, ultimately by human beasts of burden, more than 1,900 miles to Lake Tanganyika. Some of the cutouts create giant portraits of anti-colonialist leaders of the period, including John Chilembwe of Nyasaland, whose eloquent letter pleading for decency is included in the show. By the end of the procession, the loads are tattered, the giant portraits broken and bandaged. Finally the landscape disappears and we see, instead, a 180’ x 40’ multi-column list, apparently of the dead.
Though Kentridge conceived and directed The Head and the Load, the piece is the joint creation of many artists with different specialties. “My real talent,” Kentridge told me recently, “is finding great collaborators.” In fact he has nurtured a series of deep working relationships, some going back a quarter century. Nearly all of the artists he works with have impressive careers apart from their work with him, but they also at times subordinate their independent work to his vision to be part of his creative process.
Even Kentridge’s projections and animated films, as he is quick to acknowledge, owe much to his close collaboration with Catherine Meyburgh. A South African TV and film director, she has worked with Kentridge since the mid-1990s on virtually all of his animated films as well as his live theatre and opera projects. Typically, Meyburgh says, Kentridge shows her his very early drawings for a project. Being the first to see his images, she says, still is exciting, still feels like a privilege.
Next they start to discuss possible narratives or structures, and she may make suggestions for additional drawings. In The Head and the Load, for example, it was she who suggested that Kentridge draw mosquitos and other insects—part of the general torment and disease vectors for the carriers. (The show includes 40-foot-high mosquitos and fleas.) She also suggested the gallery of a dozen or more different birds, which are then blown apart. In the later phases of the process, Meyburgh and Kentridge discuss the arrangement of the drawn and filmed elements. For The Head and the Load, she also worked with technicians to make the images on the back wall appear sharp and undistorted despite using projectors at below-stage height only a few feet from the stage.
Kentridge began the intense phase of work on The Head and the Load with an 8-day workshop in November 2016 in his large, downtown studio in Johannesburg. About 60 artists participated, including the key members of his creative team—composers, a choreographer, designers, actors, singers, dancers, instrumental musicians, and his longtime associate director, Luc DeWit. Everyone already knew the basic territory he wanted to explore: war and its unspeakable destruction of human life, specifically in WWI Africa. The focus very soon came to include the misunderstandings and miscommunications that arise as disparate cultures attempt to interface, and the inherently crazy dynamics of colonialism becoming amplified under the pressure of war.
Kentridge hoped to present this reality without reducing it either to the narrative of one person (or a few people) or using a lecture format as a substitute for narrative. He wanted to find ways to express this content without distorting it into a comforting illusion of logic, of making sense. His idea was to create the work as pure collage. It was something he had never done before, though some of his films have come close.
The 2016 workshop in Johannesburg was not starting entirely from scratch. Kentridge saw The Head and the Load as coming directly out of his two most recent large projects. His production of Berg’s opera Wozzeck, which played at the Salzburg Festival in 2017 and comes to the New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2019-20, was filled with projected drawings of the destruction of war: gigantic bandaged or dead-looking heads, devastated landscapes. These presumably were the memories or the imagined terrors of the soldier Wozzeck.
The other direct predecessor for Kentridge was his 2016 Triumphs and Laments, a 550-meter-long frieze on a section of wall along Rome’s Tiber River, created by power-washing away hundreds of years of grime around the giant stencils he had made, leaving images, some 12 meters high, made of the remaining grime. (Two years later, the pictures are fading, but still clearly visible.) Triumphs and Laments had also dealt with war’s winners and losers. And its gargantuan size, Kentridge says, made the 180-foot-long Armory stage seem like a manageable miniature by comparison. Perhaps most importantly, the opening ceremonies for Triumphs and Laments included a vast procession of shadow images, a seemingly endless stream of people. This was an element Kentridge knew he wanted to be central to his new work on Africa in World War I.
Some of the collaborating artists brought specific ideas to the workshop, including scenes developed (and used or not used) in previous work. The composers had created a progressively disintegrating vocal version of “God Save the King.” The choreographer and a dancer brought a scene in which one person is both physically supporting and slapping someone who is sick or wounded—a strange, disturbing mixture, for Kentridge, “of violence and tenderness.” At the end of the workshop, Kentridge recalled, they had a core of material, “about 15 nuggets,” to be played with, developed, transformed, or discarded. From that point on, ideas flowed, even though the artists were, in some cases, geographically far apart.
Insofar as The Head and the Load can be classified it all, it could well be called an opera. The musical score and soundscape by South African composer Philip Miller, with co-composer Thuthuka Sibisi, was developed contemporaneously with—sometimes even ahead of—the visual and other elements. Collaboration is a well-honed process for these artists: Kentridge and Miller have worked together since 1994. And Sibisi, who has been Miller’s musical director for several productions, had been musical director for Triumphs and Laments. They also worked with the Knights, a New York-based experimental orchestral collective, several of whose members are in the show. In fact the music was so central to The Head and The Load that in rehearsal Kentridge would usually ask performers to start a scene “from Bar 24,” for example, as conductors do.
Miller and Sibisi’s tour-de-force vocal and instrumental score partly recalls early 20th-century European music, and quotes motifs, even long sections, from Schoenberg, Hindemith, and others. But Western melodies and harmonies continually converse, interface, meld, and clash with music more like that of Southern and Western Africa. The long a cappella rendition of “God Save The King” that wound up in the show starts with rich, opera-trained voices of South African Black singers in a multipart chorus. But it soon begins to fracture and to syncopate into complex rhythms. As the back wall shows fragments of wounded African faces, the music becomes a lament, and dissonant undertones invade, like a sour foghorn mixed with something like the rumble elephants must hear before an earthquake. When singers reprise the opening lines, their voices give out mid-syllable.
Individual musicians also navigate among and straddle musical worlds. For example, the South African opera and gospel star Ann Masina slides seamlessly, with her powerful, gorgeous voice, among Western music, including “God Save…” and Erik Satie’s waltz “Je te veux,” and African ululation, traditional South African call-and-response, and rhythmic chanting and howling composed by Miller.
Even the instruments play outside their traditional zones: Drumsticks tap the strings of a double bass to create the tut-tut-tut of artillery fire; brass players breathe into their instruments to produce eerie, hollow sounds, as if a person, or the world, is straining to keep alive. Human voices wail sirens or sing the whistle of shells arcing their way down.
Among the piano, strings, brass, and African drums is a stately, four-and-half-foot-tall kora, a West African lute-harp with 21 strings and a large, decorated calabash-gourd sound chamber. N’Faly Kouyaté, a master kora player from Guinea, blends and interacts with the Western-ish musical ensemble. One traditional use of the kora is to accompany a narrative. During the entire great procession, Kouyaté stands to one side, his giant shadow facing the other figures, and his singing and playing seem to recount the history unrolling before us. Meanwhile other Western and African music and sculpted noise underscore the action.
South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma’s dance for The Head and the Load developed alongside the story and the music. Often it creates interplays among the traditional, the colonial-influenced, and the colonial. One piece starts with a South African Pedi dance, whose exaggerated, exuberant stamping may have been created by returning World War I forced recruits. The dancers’ shadows rhythmically grow huge and retract as they move up- and downstage, then the scene grows ominously near-silent, as if they have been deafened by blasts. Eventually their stamping is squashed into military marching.
Another long sequence near the end of the show came from the idea Maqoma brought to the original workshop, of one man both supporting and striking another. Maqoma plays an apparent war survivor physically helping a half-dead companion (Thulani Chauke). Slowly, painfully, they cross the full length of the stage, with Maqoma periodically stopping and trying to force his nearly comatose companion to salute like a proper soldier.
Kentridge and Miller similarly worked out episodes with individual actors. Joanna Dudley is a performance artist with astonishing, non-traditional vocal virtuosity who has developed at least three previous works with Kentridge. For one of her several episodes in this show, Kentridge asked her to take a speech by Kaiser Wilhelm and “explode it, see what it can be.” She worked on it alone, then they edited and reworked it together. What eventually came out was a several-minute-long sequence of vocal scratches, squawks, and finally the throat-curdling screeches of a bird of prey—performed by Dudley, wearing an eagle-topped helmet, while the musical ensemble behind her plays Johann Strauss’s “Kaiser-Walzer.”
Other texts suffered similar treatment, being transformed into onomatopoeic nonsense. Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” on English soldiers’ being slaughtered “like cattle,” was translated into French (“A bad Google translation,” Kentridge said with a smile), then stripped of vowels until it was just percussive voiced emotion. (They had considered translating it into dog barks, Kentridge recalled, but dropped the idea.)
Though the show also uses a smorgasbord of languages—English, French, German, Hungarian (actually, Hungarian in Morse code), Swahili, isiZulu, and siSwati, among others—some of the actors do communicate comprehensibly, with proverbs, lists, and letters, nearly all taken from archival material. In particular, the performer Mncedisi Shabangu seems almost an emissary to inform the audience, though he’s quoting rather than lecturing. With great presence and unshakable dignity, dressed in a worn-looking gold corduroy jacket, his character narrates facts and statistics. He recites proverbs and reads John Chilembwe’s doomed plea. He also offers wisdom that is both fractured and insightful. When he uses languages other than English, they are usually subtitled somewhere on the back wall.
That is not to say that Shabangu tames the 90-minute extravaganza into a logically comprehensible theatre work. By design he absolutely does not.
Kentridge had other important but only slyly acknowledged collaborators on The Head and the Load: the Dadaist artistic insurrectionists, who formulated their values during the First World War. For the Dadaists, the insane brutality of the war offered decisive proof that the bourgeois values that underlay society and art were lethal. And if “sense” and the values orbiting around it were now the problem, nonsense could not only reflect the problem but be part of the solution. Kentridge drops broad, if somewhat esoteric, hints of Dadaist affiliations throughout the show, especially toward the beginning. The first section, called “Manifestos,” includes the iconic proclamation from Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto: “Think. Think. Think. The Fact. The Fact. The Fact. KABOOM! KABOOM! KABOOM!” The earliest of several absurd language lessons in the show, mocking the mutual incomprehension at the core of colonialism, is built around “Ursonate,” a nonsense text of expressive sounds by Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. And during the great, awful shadow procession, amid the portraits of black anti-colonial leaders are the occasional well-known images of white men, Tzara and Schwitters.
The point, Kentridge explains, is not that The Head and the Load, should be “Dadaist” nonsense—far from it, although nonsense is essential to the piece. Rather Dada provided a “strategy” for dealing with their material—a scheme that included simultaneity and illogic. The Head and the Load overwhelms the viewer with its wail, as well as its sometimes perverse beauty. But it is fundamentally different from a neatly structured play or an essay about a historical event (or, for that matter, an essay about a particular opera/theatre work such as The Head and the Load). Rather it immerses viewers in images, words, and sounds that capture parts of the experience, without organizing or taming them into a story. It is neither a narrative nor a lecture. It leaves us not only thinking about what happened back then but reeling.
Eileen Blumenthal, a critic and scholar based in New York City, is a professor of theatre at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.