In ‘Dark Noon,’ Hollywood Westerns Get a South African Reboot

The saloon is there. So are the dusty cowboy hats, the freshly laid railroad tracks and the Native American headdresses.

But while “Dark Noon” basks in these hallmarks of Hollywood westerns, it examines them through new eyes, leaving no triumphalist cliché unquestioned. Virtually every scene in this collaboration between a Danish director and a South African theater company (at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in previews before opening June 17) ends with at least one bullet-riddled corpse on the parched red earth of the set. Many of the dead are female or Indigenous.

“It is a western town,” Nhlanhla Mahlangu, the co-director and choreographer, said of the archetypal tumbleweedy community that rises up over the course of the action, “but it is all the settlement towns of South Africa as well. We are also talking about the shootings in our country.”

Nearly all of the play’s seven actors piled into an increasingly crammed green room with Mahlangu to discuss the work after their final performance at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., and they agreed about these similarities. “So much of our own lives are connected to these tropes,” said Mandla Gaduka, a cast member.

The narrative in which the white-hatted cowboy tames the Wild West, typically through the explicit or (usually) implicit genocide of his Indigenous predecessors, comes in for withering scrutiny in “Dark Noon.”

Tue Biering, who wrote the script and also directs, said he initiated the project about five years ago with a very different concept in mind. “It started with me wanting to talk about Africa through the lens of an American western film,” he said in a Zoom interview. “And it struck me that this was so wrong as a white European telling the story. I thought, ‘How about if we reversed it? How about if you told my story?’”

Not specifically Biering’s story, of course, but those of millions of Europeans who fled oppression and poverty from “a time where white lives didn’t matter,” as the script cheekily puts it, only to find that any chance of owning land meant colonization. The savage irony of these men and women — but mostly men — going on to oppress the Indigenous populations that they discovered there plays a central role in “Dark Noon.”

Through a series of workshops in Johannesburg, Biering and Mahlangu assembled a company of actors and assigned each performer a research topic on American history (religion, gun culture, etc.). Later, the actors took turns trying on different outfits from a collection of western costumes in the center of the rehearsal room and improvising. The costumes, the research, the actors’ memories of Clint Eastwood movies on VHS tapes and their own experiences in post-apartheid South Africa all went into Biering’s script.

The mostly Black cast of “Dark Noon” — one actor is white — ultimately wore something else as they portrayed the European settlers: whiteface. Lillian Tshabalala-Malulyck, who has been involved with “Dark Noon” for five years, said her feelings about wearing the white powder have shifted over time.

“In the beginning, I was so excited about whitefacing,” she said. “As a Black actor, it felt like a rebellious and freeing response to blackface. As the show has progressed, I do think about how two wrongs don’t make a right. But I have learned to become OK in sitting with the awkwardness, and I think this show gives the audience a chance to do the same.”

But several audience members sit for only part of the show. The cast members routinely pull them onto the set, where they sip whiskey, attend church and even square dance. Just as quickly, they find themselves herded into a barbed-wire pen and even sold in a slave auction, sometimes mere seconds after one of the more idyllic interactions.

Mahlangu compared the audience’s experience to that of Sarah Baartman, the South African woman who voluntarily sailed to England in the early 1800s and later found herself paraded around Europe as a freak-show oddity known as the Hottentot Venus. “There are times where you board this ship with no conception of what awaits you,” Mahlangu said of the “Dark Noon” stage.

Also, he said, “because our play is like a western movie, all Hollywood films have lead actors and extras. We have deluxe extras who have paid to be there!”

One task that the audience members are spared is the real-time construction of a western town, as the cast members gradually fill the bare stage with a saloon, a church, a jail and other buildings.

“As I was reading about American history,” Biering said, “it was all about territory and planting something to say, ‘This is my land.’”

Tshabalala-Malulyck compared the construction of the town to the ills of gentrification. “It speaks to development and progress,” she said, “but it also asks: Who is this for? Who does it benefit?”

As far back as the 1920s, Hollywood asked these thorny questions as well, according to Andrew Patrick Nelson, a film studies professor at the University of Utah who is also host of the podcast “How the West Was ’Cast.”

“At any time, can you find triumphalist good-guys-and-bad-guys conventions?” Nelson said. “You can. But nearly all of the great westerns are quite critical of the process in which white civilization took ownership of the West.”

However, he said, the power of such iconic westerns as “The Searchers” is that they can simultaneously be read as glorifying and condemning their protagonists. “Those two things can exist side by side,” he said. “That’s the power of the myth we’re dealing with here.”

The Spoleto run was the U.S. premiere of the well-traveled “Dark Noon,” which generated both walkouts and standing ovations at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2023. (Finagling the cast and crew’s visas took some bipartisan effort. “Lindsey Graham and Chuck Schumer’s offices ended up joining forces to get them here,” said Mena Mark Hanna, Spoleto’s general director, “which is a testament to art bringing people together.”)

Back in that Charleston green room, the cast and creative team all expressed some discomfort about finally presenting America’s unvarnished history to American audiences. “It’s scary,” Gaduka admitted, although “the U.K. presented its own challenges since we as Black South Africans were colonized by England.”

As for Tshabalala-Malulyck, she sees that awkwardness among the audience as a valuable and even necessary part of the “Dark Noon” experience. “I hope they can be open-minded and don’t automatically detach,” she said. “I hope they can see themselves in it. I hope they can unpack for themselves what history really is and come to their own decision of what they carry forth as an American.”

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