Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Gail Louw: The Only White

By | Published on Friday 31 March 2023

Coming up at The Chelsea Theatre this week is ‘The Only White’, a play that tells the story of the only white man executed for political action in Apartheid South Africa and the impact that had on those around him. 

It explores themes of courage, comradeship and love, while also documenting the powerful and oppressive government that activists of the time sought to fight. It’s by renowned playwright Gail Louw, who was a teenager living in South Africa at the time of these events. I spoke to her to find out more. 

CM: Firstly, can you tell us about the narrative of ‘The Only White’? What story does it tell? 
GL: In July 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”. They don’t. The bomb explodes, 23 are injured and one dies. 

‘The Only White’ is the story of the one white man who was executed for political activities in Apartheid South Africa. It is a true retelling of a man’s need to do something big, something significant, something he believed could change the course of history and end oppression. 

The repercussions of his actions are enormous, not only in its actual negative impact on his cause, but also on the people closest to him.

These were his wife Ann, his tiny baby, and the family that supported and held everyone together – the Hain family in Pretoria and their fourteen year old son, Peter Hain.

Peter grew up to become a British MP and cabinet minister in the UK government, and is now a member of the House Of Lords. 

CM: What themes are explored through the play? 
GL: ‘The Only White’ is a story of courage, comradeship and love, and these themes flow and intertwine throughout the play. Facing death by execution impacts not only the person directly affected, but also those closest to him.

Living with the Sword Of Damacles hanging above you for months, desperately trying to avert it and stop it, is traumatic for all involved. Yet this was experienced by all those connected to John Harris, because of the love they had for him, and the constant need to support him and each other.

And all, of course, because they believed fervently in the cause of defeating oppression and injustice – defeating, in a word, Apartheid.

CM: Would you call it a political play? 
GL: Yes, it is a political play and is certainly seen as such by the cast, as it deals with fighting a powerful oppressive government and the minority that it benefits.

The issues it explores are universal and the basis of the story affects many people and countries throughout the world today. The parallels to what is going on in our society today allows us to reflect on where we as a society have been and to where we don’t want to go back.

While ‘The Only White’ is about the one white person to be executed for political activities in Apartheid South Africa, we must remember constantly that there were very, very many black and Indian people who were executed.

South Africa is a different country now compared to the 1960s, but it has many problems that continue to exist. Though, luckily not capital punishment.

CM: It’s based on a real story of course – does it stay entirely true to the facts? 
GL: It does, though the truth of the facts is a bit of a continuum; what do you include and what do you exclude?

There is a lot of material that I was able to draw on for the play. The letters that John and his wife Ann wrote to each other were an extremely powerful source, not only of information but also about their inner world, their truth, in their words. I was careful to use their words, even their spelling – such as ‘&’ rather than ‘and’ – when I incorporated the letters into their interaction.

I have since spoken to other members of John’s family who were able to inform me of aspects of his life, his childhood, his relationship with his parents and sisters, that are not part of the play. But then again, a play needs its own dramatic boundaries, and I would not have changed them had I spoken to these family members before I wrote it.

CM: What made you want to make this story into a stage play? What was the inspiration? 
GL: The bombing of Jo’burg station was a key moment in South African history. I have vivid recollections as a thirteen year old hearing about it, being shocked by it, but also being on the periphery of a group of my mother’s friends who knew John well, talking about him – a lovely person but such a stupid thing to do! 

When I read Peter Hain’s story ‘The Pretoria Boy’, where he discusses John Harris and the role his family played in supporting him and his wife, and the impact of this on his development, I felt this was a great hook to hang the story on – though perhaps ‘hang’ is an unfortunate term here.

Why did John do it? What drove him to do something so reckless and damaging? Those thoughts had never left me and I wanted to know more about who he was and what it was like from his perspective.

How would a wife respond and would she stand by him? The element of their relationship is tremendously poignant as we have their reaction to themselves and each other in the letters that they wrote.

So why write it as a play? That’s what I do!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about how Peter Hain and Harris’s son David were involved in the development of the play?
GL: Peter Hain has written two books, ‘The Pretoria Boy’ and ‘Ad And Wal’. These paint a vivid picture of his parents and their relationship with John and Ann. I was able to get a wonderful sense of their lives and their characters from the books – truly inspiring, dedicated people.

But it was really helpful to spend time speaking to Peter himself, as well as his brother Tom and an old friend who is mentioned in the play, Jill Chisholm. They all spoke of the fact that Peter has really always been an extremely good bloke! 

David Wolfe is a human rights barrister and John’s son. He was a young baby when John was arrested. He was very helpful in reading a draft of the play and correcting what he saw as being not absolutely accurate.

That made the play far more truthful than it might have been without his involvement. Both Peter and David were extremely encouraging and supportive.

CM: And can we now talk a little about you? Did you always want to write plays? How did you get into this career? 
GL: I was an academic working at the Institute Of Postgraduate Medicine at Brighton University. I started writing after I had completed a PhD and felt the need to have something to work on.

I found a story that I realised had to be a play rather than a novel, and did a course at Sussex University on playwriting under the leadership of Richard Crane. I continued to write while I did the day job and was finally supported by Tony Milner of the New Vic Theatre Workshop in getting a production on. That was in 2008.

I’ve been writing for over twenty years and have been lucky enough to have had productions staged throughout the world. 

CM: What would you say have been the highlights of your career thus far?
GL: I guess it is that ‘throughout the world’ concept. I love travelling to places where my plays are on.

Some of the highlights have been my play ‘Shackleton’s Carpenter’ on the Queen Mary 2, where I ran playwriting workshops last October; my play ‘Blonde Poison’ on at the Sydney Opera House; and ‘Miss Dietrich Regrets’ in Johannesburg at the wonderful Theatre On The Square in Sandton.

CM: What aims and hopes do you have for the future?
GL: Ah, aims and hopes, versus reality. Unfortunately, the reality is all about funding and that is an enormous problem. So I hope that the nine plays I have waiting to go into production will happen, but I know that I will be lucky if I get funding for just one of them. Does that sound horribly pessimistic?

CM: What’s coming up next for you? Anything in the pipeline? 
GL: My play ‘The Good Dad’ will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, and the Afrikaans version will be on in South Africa.

The Czech version of ‘Miss Dietrich Regrets’ goes on in Prague frequently, and I have had a novel published which needs some serious marketing – ‘Rika’s Rooms’ published by Waterloo Press.

We have great hopes for ‘The Only White’ and we are making plans for its further life.

‘The Only White’ is on at Chelsea Theatre from 4-22 Apr. See this page here to book your tickets.

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