In the program notes for "Winnie: She Who Strives," director Tony Tsendeas says this one-woman show about Winnie Mandela, written and performed by Denise Diggs, is "not a documentary, but rather an impression of a life."
The impression Diggs gives in her confident, spirited performance is a decidedly sympathetic one. News accounts may increasingly portray the ex-wife of South African President Nelson Mandela as militant, extravagant and out of control. But that's not the woman Diggs portrays in this co-production by Impossible Industrial Action Theater and Sights Productions.
Instead, Diggs -- a local actress on the faculty of the Baltimore School for the Arts -- shows us an intelligent, sensitive woman who is equally devoted to her husband and politics. If anything, her husband and politics are one and the same to her. She is in love with the cause of freedom for her people.
Even her African name, which she tells us means "she who strives, one who goes through many trials," is political. It's also an eerie portent of the literal trials that Winnie Mandela has faced in her adult years -- trials that have resulted in repeated banning orders and imprisonments.
In one of the most riveting scenes, Diggs describes Winnie Mandela's 17 months in solitary confinement, complete with such details as unraveling the threads of a prison blanket and then weaving them back to maintain her sanity.
Although Mandela became aware of racial inequities in her early girlhood, Diggs conveys less angst than exuberance in Mandela's childhood and in the subsequent scholarship that led to her becoming a minor celebrity as the first black medical social worker in a South African hospital.
That exuberance, depicted with a lilt in Diggs' heavily accented speech as well as in her movements, also surfaces in the Mandelas' wedding scene, though even in the midst of her happiness, the bride acknowledges: "He did not belong to me. He was the people's man. I knew I could not claim him."
Diggs' script tells us this was Nelson Mandela's second marriage; it doesn't tell us he was still married when he proposed to Winnie. Nor does Diggs specify the 16-year difference in their ages, though she does make it clear that Nelson Mandela was already revered by South African blacks as a lawyer and president of the African National Congress when they met in 1958.
There are other important aspects of Winnie Mandela's biography that Diggs' two-act script, or perhaps her South African dialect, glide by too glibly. Chief among these are the murder of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei by her bodyguards (for which they were convicted of murder and she of kidnapping), and her controversial township speech about liberating the country with matches and "necklaces" (gasoline-filled tires ignited around the victim's neck).
After fighting for her husband's cause throughout his 27-year imprisonment, Diggs' Winnie Mandela is left primarily with rhetoric and a sense of continuing persecution, in the form of rumors, media accusations and her husband's pressure for a divorce. "They thought I went too far with my speeches. I don't think I went far enough," she says.
In Winnie Mandela, Denise Diggs has chosen a complex subject. Wisely, she portrays Mandela's humanity instead of her public image. However accurate the resulting impression may be, it is definitely affecting.
'Winnie: She Who Strives'
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. (No performance Sept. 28) Through Sept. 29.
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
Call: (410) 752-8558
Pub Date: 9/13/96