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Nina Sankovitch

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Waiting for the Opera, I Read the Book: 'Cry, the Beloved Country'

Posted: 08/16/2012 6:45 pm

Having been unable to see the recent Glimmerglass production of Kurt Weill's opera Lost in the Stars, I instead read the novel upon which it is based, Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. The opera at Glimmerglass, directed by the fabulously gifted Tazewell Thompson, received rave reviews -- from, among others, the Wall Street Journal, who praised Thompson's "sensitive, understated production" for allowing "the deep emotion" of the opera to come through. As Francesca Zambello, general director of Glimmerglass explained, "Issues of apartheid and racism are still with us," and a musical exploration of social issues can move the dialogue for change forward.

But until the production of Lost in the Stars moves closer to New York City (please, please, please), I hoped the book upon which it is based would satisfy. In an interview with Tazewell Thompson, he explained the novel Cry, the Beloved Country was one of his favorite novels, which left a "deep, long-lasting effect..." As an avid reader always looking for something new to read, I could not resist.

Cry, the Beloved Country is a tremendous book, a carefully structured and recklessly open (heart and soul) depiction of race relations in South Africa in the 1940s. Apartheid was not yet the official policy of South Africa and in fact there was some movement towards more liberal and humane practices of housing, education, and providing opportunities for the black communities across South Africa. But we all know how that turned out: Jan Hofmeyr, a white political leader moving for greater rights across all South African communities, died suddenly, opening the doors to the conservative Afrikaner Nationalist politics and decades of horrific oppression.

In Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton explores the desiccation of the black farming communities, as more and more young men and women leave their towns and villages to work in the mines of Johannesburg or in the homes of the burgeoning wealthy whites. Instead of painting a broad picture, Paton looks at one community and its pastor Kumalo, the umfundisi who must struggle to sustain the faith of his dwindling community amidst lands that can no longer produce food enough to feed and rivers that no longer carry water enough to drink.

The pastor's son left months ago for Johannesburg, and has sent no word of his success or failures in the big city. Then a letter arrives for Kumalo from Johannesburg with news, and he must travel, using what little money he has, to try to uncover the secrets of a city larger and more complicated than any he could ever imagine.

What unfolds is a story not of blacks versus whites, but of the fears that keep whites and blacks apart: "Men were afraid, with a fear that was deep, deep in the heart, a fear so deep that they hid their kindness, or brought it out with fierceness and anger, and hid it behind fierce and frowning eyes." One of the most moving lines of the book, and still so relevant today for all our present situations of strife between factions, is: "I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we have turned to hating."

Hate leads to hate -- but in Paton's novel, one courageous act turns the tide, in one place and for all time. A good man dies, and two fathers must struggle with the aftermath. This one tragic incident could have lead to more fear and greater pain, but instead, one father is moved to realize the goals of his son, and another father, to act on the possibilities of the future instead of mourning the past. Fear is put down, love is taken up, and the beloved country breathes again, for a little while at least.

Cry, the Beloved Country is a great book, a bestseller across the world in the years following its publication, and a book still so relevant, so heartbreaking, and so uplifting today. I would recommend it as a community read across the United States, and beg all readers to find within it both admonishment -- to care -- and encouragement to dream.

And please, bring the opera Lost in the Stars closer to New York -- or Hartford, or Chicago, or Boston, Miami, Dallas, L.A., San Francisco. Big cities need big dreams, and a good nudge: Love over hate, caring over fear-mongering. A good message in this election year.

 

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