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The Tallest Tree in the Forest has Fallen

by on December 11, 2013 6:00 AM

The first time I saw Nelson Mandela in person was in 1990. He and his wife, Winnie, were visiting Harlem after his recent release after 27 years in prison.

I was rehearsing a new play at The Apollo Theatre. Less than a block from the theatre, a platform had been set up in front of the tallest building in Harlem, for a man who was a giant amongst men. One hundred thousand people were packed into the streets leading into the intersection of 125th and Adam Clayton Powell.

Everyone who was anybody in Harlem was on the streets for this joyous occasion, including New York Congressman Charles Rangel. His bill had banned sales to the apartheid government, a major factor which had led to Mandela's release. Malcolm X's widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz, was welcomed by Winnie with a loving hug.

Later that day, Mandela would speak to 75,000 people in Yankee Stadium but his Harlem address was, as the Apollo Marque proclaimed, his true homecoming. Many of us had been involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. A dozen years before, like a quarter of my class, I had worn a black arm band at my law school graduation, to protest South Africa's apartheid policies.

President Obama recently admitted that his first political activism had been in the anti-apartheid struggle. Hugh Masekela had taught us the anthem –Free Nelson Mandela.

"The light at the end of the tunnel is beckoning," Mandela said. "But we are not yet there ... Let us act in unity. Let us double and redouble our efforts."

Four years later, 1994, Mandela was elected President in South Africa's first-ever democratic elections. After serving one five year term, he decided not to run again, allowing the democratic process to choose his successor. In the US we are used to such behavior. In fact it is built into our process. But it rarely happens in Africa. The man known by his affectionate nickname, "Madiba",  had said," We refuse to accept anything less than full democracy."

During his tenure Madiba established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which asked South Africans of all races to forgive each other for past political grievances and atrocities. It was a revolutionary and controversial idea – to seek out and nurture the humanity and dignity in your former enemy. He himself set the example by inviting his former prison guards to his home. Several of these white Afrikaners became his strongest allies. The TRC started ripples of graciousness, wisdom, and humanity, which flowed out and across the seas touching all shores.

The next time I saw Mandela was in 2003, at The African National Congress Convention in Stellenbosch, South Africa, where I was a Fulbright professor. Madiba entered the Convention Hall during President Thabo Mbeki's opening address. The crowd welcomed him with songs, cheers and dancing. It went on for almost a half hour. I have never seen a leader so beloved in his own land. Later that year, my wife and I were invited to his 85th birthday party. But, I had a conflict with another Fulbright obligation in Ghana.

The ripples from Mandela's life spread far and wide. There are several places it touches in State College. Tony Leach's multicultural choir, Essence of Joy, has toured South Africa and has invited South African groups to perform here in State College.

The Penn State Theatre program has produced two original plays (REVENGE OF A KING by PSU graduate, Herb Newsome and BLOOD AT THE ROOT by Dominique Morriseau, both directed by Steve Broadnax, head of Penn State graduate acting program) at The National
Arts Festival (NAF). BLOOD has been invited to return to perform at the world famous Market Theatre in June of 2014. My own play, WOLF BY THE EARS premiered at the The National Arts Festival in 2002 before it was selected as one of five semifinalists for the National Award for best Black Play.

In 2008 there was a racial incident at the University of The Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, which stirred negative feeling and fears of a throwback to apartheid. Several white students protesting racial integration at the predominantly white university shamed and humiliated four black domestic workers.

The students were suspended but in addition, mirroring the TRC, the new and enlightened Rector (President) Jonathan Jansen initiated a reconciliation program designed to bring divergent racial groups together, to increase communication between races and to heal wounds. It resulted in a public forgiveness ceremony, which was a transforming experience for all who participated and witnessed it.

A dance/narrative was created out of the event. The co-creator of the event, Angelo Mockie, was invited to Penn State to teach our dancers to perform the piece. A public ritual of healing -- it was presented on the January following the exposure of our own scandal and scarring, the Sandusky outrage.

For many PSU students who participated or viewed RACE, RECONCILIATION AND THE REITZ FOUR it was a transformative experience. They said it helped them handle the private shame they were feeling in a more healing way. By the way, the University of The Free State under Jansen's leadership has evolved from a predominantly white university mired in policies of racial apartheid into a predominantly black university building the new South Africa. Jansen has been invited to give the Nelson Mandela lecture at PSU next spring.

Though I saw Madiba several times during my four years in South Africa I was never blessed to meet him personally as have five US Presidents and countless heads of state and leaders of governments, scores of celebrities, and thousands of ordinary people whose world of racial despair has been transformed by his example, leadership and sacrifice.

All will be there this week to sing his praises, to celebrate his life, and to say good-bye to a man whose like we will not see again in our lifetime. Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. Nkosi Sikelel' Madiba. God bless Africa. God bless Madiba.

Charles Dumas is a retired professor from the School of Theatre at Penn State University. He also taught at Temple, the University of the Free State and Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He is the past Arts and Entertainment Editor of Voices of Central Pennsylvania and is a respected columnist. He was a Hendler fellow at The American Film Institute and a LDF Scholar at Yale Yale School. He has been married to Dr. A. J. Dumas for over 43 years.
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