The South African artist William Kentridge’s performance piece “The Head and the Load,” currently at the Park Avenue Armory, is by turns dumbfounding, eviscerating, and beautiful. It chronicles—through dance, projected images, speech, song, pantomime, shadow play, and music, and in a score of other ways, like a fusillade of arrows hitting not one but many bull’s-eyes—the history of the Africans in the First World War, and particularly the experiences of those who worked as porters, hauling cannons, munitions, provisions, and even ships across the continent. Kentridge, who, at sixty-three, has a rumpled, professorial mien, was born and grew up in Johannesburg, in a Jewish family. Both his parents were lawyers and worked on civil-rights cases. When he was a schoolboy, the history lessons never mentioned that black Africans had been involved in fighting the Great War.
Kentridge, wearing gray trousers and a white button-down shirt with its sleeves rolled up, told me, “We learned nothing, absolutely nothing, about the participation of the porters in the war. This piece, ‘The Head and the Load,’ was a way to answer an ignorance in myself. We did learn that, in 1917, the S.S. Mendi had sunk, with great loss of life, with many Africans aboard. But there was no discussion about what they were doing there, in the English Channel.” We were sitting in the Green Room at the Armory, on Sixty-seventh Street, and snow was falling outside the huge windows. That February, more than a hundred years ago, the S.S. Mendi sank near the Isle of Wight, after colliding with another vessel. The ship was carrying eight hundred and twenty-three men from the South African Native Labor Corps, mainly black Africans, on their way to serve in the French Army. Six hundred and forty-six men drowned. Kentridge continued, “A lot of the people who joined up hoped for civil rights—the idea was that they would fight, and when it was over their status would change. But, instead, when they returned they were given a coat and a bicycle. A generation later, some of the children of those men remembered that bicycle and coat, which they were not allowed to touch, because they were special objects.”
The idea for the piece came about circuitously. In 2016, in Rome, Kentridge created a large-scale mural that ran for eighteen hundred feet along the north bank of the Tiber; tableaux from Roman history were created by streaming water through huge stencils based on his charcoal drawings. At the opening of the piece, a phalanx of actors, singers, and musicians performed along the bank, which became, in effect, a five-hundred-metre-long stage. At the Armory, the audience also faces a long horizontal stage, watching as figures surface, move, and then are erased, often partnered by larger-than-life shadows. The effect is at once newfangled and old-fashioned, a mod stereopticon.
At the start, Kentridge set himself two tasks. The first was to consider the arc of the piece. He didn’t want it to be shaped around one person’s experience—leaving his family, going to war, coming home. He laughed. “I thought I could manage that. But the second task was harder. Could you present something that has meaning without giving a lecture? Could we trust that the material would map something within an audience? I started very much as a Leninist artist, asking, ‘What is it that people need to see?’ But that became patronizing. Instead, I give the image the benefit of the doubt, before interrogating it. But, all the same, we wondered: Why would people want to see us speaking poetry? The point was not obscurity! We had big arguments.” He paused. “The actors are engaged, and feel like it is theirs, but at a certain point I say, ‘If each of you gets to take out something you don’t like we’ll be left with nothing. So, I decide.’ ”
The piece unfolds like a fever dream. At any one moment, multiple events are occurring onstage. Watching it, you want to be everywhere at once. Indeed, I attended “The Head and the Load” twice, in order to sort through the deck of images: huge drawings of birds superimposed on lists of the dead; those same birds shattering, as if hit by the ricochet of a bullet; the actress Joanna Dudley, as a mesmerizing cabaret version of Kaiser Wilhelm, performing on a moving plinth; dancers wearing headpieces that look like mushroom clouds; Kurt Schwitters’s Dadaist text “Ursonate” recited at high speed; a camp re-creation of the Berlin Conference; a wounded man struggling to a give a wobbly salute.
Kentridge said, “I hope there is the pressure of logic within it—not a raft of answers, but the importance of the questions themselves.” As in the work of the French director Ariane Mnouchkine, the director of the Théâtre du Soleil, for whom the stage is always an active ongoing experiment, Kentridge’s players create the dimensions of the roles themselves. (Like Mnouchkine, Kentridge attended Jacques Lecoq’s acting school, in Paris.) He continued: “In the sequence of the wounded man, we have the feeling of the body following and not following an order—a wounded man falling and catching himself. The moment we saw the wounded man dance, we knew we had the emotional heart of the piece. For me, that moment was a talisman.” He paused. “We have a fragmented vision of history—when we discover a new fragment, we revise history.”
“The Head and the Load” takes its name from a Ghanaian proverb, “The head and the load are the troubles of the neck.” The African porters carried munitions, supplies, officers’ kits, and cannons through Africa. In the production, an actor playing the part of a military officer says, “They are not men, because they have no name. They are not soldiers, because they have no number. You don’t call them, you count them.” In “The Head and the Load,” the shadows loom larger than the actors themselves, the darkness of history made visible, as if the shadows had a life of their own. Kentridge paused for a moment, then said, “The best things have happened in spite of myself. In my animated films, in which I show drawings appearing and disappearing, I was very apologetic about the imperfect erasures. But people said, ‘The one thing that is interesting is the smudge below the drawing!’ There are things that seem to be good ideas but fall apart—thus, ideas that aren’t at the center but shape the heart of a piece.”
The snowblink from Park Avenue came through the tall windows. Between them stood a life-size bas-relief wood carving of a soldier, every scale of his armor distinct, with the face of a Pre-Raphaelite angel. Most of the accounts of Kentridge’s youth in Johannesburg mention that he was a prodigiously talented artist from a very young age. Kentridge laughed when I mentioned this. “I was thought prodigiously talented by my mother! I think I became an artist to avoid legal thinking. Could I find a different way of thinking than logic and the law?” He paused. “All children draw. I just didn’t stop.”