South African performer creates 'The Cool Train' in Minnesota

Lunga Sinuka
Lunga Sinuka tells his own story of growing up in South Africa in "The Cool Train."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

It's been a decade and a half since the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, but for people like Twin Cities performer Lunga Sinuka its legacy is very real.

Sinuka who grew up in a remote village under apartheid has been performing his autobiographical play "The Cool Train," around the Twin Cities. He said he hopes to put a very personal face on what happened in South Africa.

As "The Cool Train" begins, a single figure steps on stage and sings.

Over the next 70 minutes Lunga Sinuka tells his tale, or as he likes to call it, the story of a little boy.

"I was born and grew up in South Africa, deep, deep down at the southern tip of the African Continent," he announces in his clipped accent.

The Lunga Sinuka who talks is quieter than the Lunga Sinuka on stage. Life was hard in the village, he said. No electricity. No running water.

"We didn't even have any toys, when I grow up with my friends," he said. "We used to use rocks."

"We forgive and forget. So that's my main main part of this play."

Lunga Sinuka said poverty was all they knew, so they didn't expect anything different. The same was true when they went on their rare trips into town and saw a very different world full of white privilege.

"Anything that was nice, that belongs to the white people. Anything white is nice," he said. "I thought it was supposed to be like that all over the world."

That changed as he got older and he went to a boarding school. In the play he describes learning more about the world, and his heritage as a member of the Xhosa tribe.

"I am a Xhosa boy from a Xhosa tribe and I speak Xhosa," he said, launching a burst of his click-filled native language. "I went to Xhosa schools and did everything in Xhosa language."

As he learned more about his identity he began to recognize the racist realities of apartheid.

"You put things together and you realize that, 'Man! The things I was taking for granted - no! No! This is wrong.'"

He got angrier and angrier every day. He began taking part in the schools boycotts and joined the African National Congress protests. It was a dangerous time.

But this was where Lunga Sinuka's life took a twist. One day he met two students from Hope College in Michigan. One of them introduced him to a member of the schools scholarship committee and suddenly, in 1993, he found himself in America. It was an amazing switch, and he said a personally troubling one too.

"I didn't see any difference between white and white, white South Africans and white Americans, I was still angry seeing the white Americans as my enemies, although they had absolutely nothing to do with my struggle, my suffering in South Africa."

In college, Lunga Sinuka began to come to grips with what had happened to him and his country. He also watched in amazement from afar as his homeland changed, and Nelson Mandela became president. He watched the truth and reconciliation commission work to build new understandings between South Africans who had fought each other for years. His country was changing and so was he.

After moving to Minnesota he wanted to tell his own story about his own journey. At first he thought about writing a book, but realized a play would be simpler. "The Cool Train" debuted at Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis earlier this year. After several shows at other venues, Sinuka is bringing it to the Pillsbury House Theater in Minneapolis this weekend.

He said he wants to tell the story of the little boy to as many people as he can.

"We forgive and forget. So that's my main main part of this play. The stuff that you've been thinking about and that's been happening to you. You really can't just keep that in you and get mad every day otherwise, that's not going to work."

After this weekends run, Lunga Sinuka will make a few changes in "The Cool Train." He hopes to adapt it into a workshop for theater departments at local colleges.

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