This play telling the true story of John Harris’ (Edmund Sage-Green) incarceration and execution in 1965 South Africa is appropriately titled The Only White – because he is the only white person ever executed in the country’s history. It is told mainly through conversations within the Hain family who are taking in John’s wife. In The Only White, most of the time two scenes are being viewed – John is in his cell and the family with Anne Harris (Avena Mansergh-Wallace) at the home. The Hain family who are close friends of the couple and fellow activists consists of Wal (Robert Blackwood), Ad (Emma Wilkinson-Wright), and their 14-year-old son Peter (Gil Sidaway). As the family goes about the best ways to help John, he is shown trying to withstand his days in his cell. He is beaten and suffering greatly. But John is heard from only briefly. So, the narrative is largely developed by conversations in the Hain family’s living room, and sometimes their garden to avoid possible government eavesdropping.
This perspective allows for discussion to occur about John’s accused crime. Both parents are activists who take that aspect of themselves seriously. And their son Peter is curious and consistently wants to be more involved. He looks up to John as a mentor. And throughout the show, his thinking is left without cynicism and his father participates in many intense conversations where Peter is helped to realize the grim complex reality of the situation. His youth leads him to point out obvious statements that the adults can find rebuttals for but are still worth considering. There is no consensus reached within the household about the true morality of John’s actions which I think is important. It begs the question: is violence ever necessary?
Once John Harris is faced with the damning testimony by his friend and fellow imprisoned ARM member, John Lloyd, his fate is sealed. Attempts are still made to save John from hanging, but it is soon clear that his skin color won’t save him as all predicted. And now discussion occurs within the Hain home about John Lloyd’s morality. Within each discussion in the family’s living room, Wal acts as the voice of reason and moderator while Peter is asking the questions and reacting to what is all so terrible and confusing for any 14-year-old to comprehend. This dynamic is very useful to the audience. It allows the complexities of the issue to be easily digested.
The Only White is heartbreaking and beautiful, the direction and dialogue make the show entertaining and intriguing instead of a documentary – thanks to director Anthony Shrubsall and playwright Gail Louw. I came into the show knowing nothing about the event and was able to catch on after the intermission and some light Googling, but found myself enamored by the story after I left the theatre. This is a relatively recent event and many people involved are still alive. I found myself reading multiple articles about many who were involved. The portrayal of them as characters in a play drove me to learn more about them as people. Which I think should be seen as an achievement for the creative team. If you want to understand the events in the play, I do suggest refreshing yourself on the Johannesburg Railway Station Bombing and the execution of John Harris before attending. But if you are slightly or completely unfamiliar with the background, this play will intrigue you and you’ll find yourself learning quite a bit of history while being entertained.
Review by Elisabeth Beer
Mid-winter 1964, a phone rings at Johannesburg Railway Station. John Harris speaks quickly into the receiver: “This is the African Resistance Movement. We have planted a bomb, It is not our intention to harm anyone. Clear the Concourse.”
The bomb explodes, twenty-three are injured, one dies.
Does the end justify the means? Does one life matter?
The Only White is a true retelling of a story in a desperate fight for freedom, a story of the one white man executed for political activities in Apartheid South Africa. But it is also a story of love and courage and comradeship, and love.
The Only White
4th to 22nd April 2023