The voice of Nelson Mandela crackles through much of "Cadre," the interesting new work-in-progress created, mostly in Chicago, by the South African writer-director Omphile Molusi, known internationally for his play "Itsoseng." Those of us of a certain age are hardwired to hear the authoritative tones of the great Mandela, who went from jail cell to the presidential suite, as the signal of an ending — to official apartheid, circa 1994.
But that's 20 years ago now. For an entire generation, Mandela was a start, not a destination. And Wikipedia timelines are always sharper than reality. Rules change faster than people — that's one of the issues in play in "Cadre," which follows a young man trying to navigate his way through a world that remained in flux. The political masters might have changed but guys in uniform have the habit of longer resistance. And then there's the little matter of personal happiness, which may or may not reflect the change in the broader political landscape. As Molusi's character Gregory cries at one point: "What is freedom without love?"
Well, it's better than repression without love. But better than repression with love? That's a good question and, perhaps, one of the universal keys that this show needs to further develop to best reach the intended international audience. Molusi, who performs the show with two powerful South-African actors, Sello Motloung and Lillian Tshabalala, has been developing the piece in Chicago. It heads next to The Market Theatre of Johannesburg and then to the Adelaide Festival of the Arts in Australia.
At this juncture, it gets better as it goes. Much of the show gets trapped in the interaction between Gregory and a variety of authority figures played by Motloung, a fine actor who deserves more opportunities to show his nuance without wielding a belt or pointing a gun. Certainly, the brutality of the overall landscape is a crucial referent, but the risk of a three-performer show is that you fail to see enough context. And although the piece uses some shadow puppetry, and a gorgeous fabric design from Scott Davis, it has not yet fleshed out that landscape sufficiently. Nor does the piece have a sufficiently acute sense of time.
It seems like Molusi intends Gregory to be a kind of personal Woyzeck, a South-African everyman who sets out on long, wearying journey on the fringes of change and revolution, only to discover that he was never happier than with his childhood love, sweetly played by the remarkably resourceful Tshabalala (also the music director). That's a perfectly reasonable trajectory — and, ultimately, quite moving — but it needs a more intense and kinetic theatricality. We need to see that Gregory is actually going somewhere, even if his movement is closer to a pinball in a cruel machine than a man in search of his own destiny.
Ultimately, Molusi himself is the show's biggest asset. He's a truly remarkable actor with an unmistakable moral authority, a bleeding vulnerability, and, by the end of this piece, you find yourself quite transfixed with his persona. But it's never easy to direct yourself on a long trip.
When: Through Feb. 23
Where: Chicago Shakespeare's Upstairs Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com