A screw fell to the ground
in this dark night of overtime
Plunging vertically, lightly clinking
Just like last time
On a night like this
when someone plunged to the ground.
This poem was written by a young Chinese worker at Foxconn, a company that manufactures most of the world’s iPhones, days before he jumped to death in 2014. Now, 24-year-old Xu Lizhi’s lonely cry is being amplified in a musical indicting capitalism, made by students of the Ambedkar University in Delhi. Helping them is a group of intellectuals from India and South Africa. The work is titled Dark Things and will be staged in an unused basketball court.
The performance begins with a speeding factory van coming to a sudden stop and two people jumping out of the back. They are the agents who transport migrants to European countries. “I decide how many fit on my boat. A liver can get you to Italy. For a kidney, I’ll free you un to Spain,” announces a fixer. In the next scene, a row of migrants moves across the space, carrying remnants of their former lives — wrapped bundles, an infirm person on a chair, a cycle and a plant. Poems by Lizhi form part of the segment, Suicide at Foxconn. A vignette in the play, The Boner, deals with the excavation of a mass grave, while another has a singer performing on top of a moving trolley as soldiers provide contrasting visuals.
“Dark Things is a weaving together of bits of hardship from the new frontiers of work and suffering in the 21st century. This frontier of cellphones, silk and hazmat suits, and its Afro-Asian landscape signify a world out of joint and moral kilter,” reads the concept note. The play is based on a script for an oratorio by South African poet and academic Ari Sitas. “We celebrate cellphones as a great 21st-century commodity and yet, if we look at the people who are making it, we will see a landscape of work and suffering. My libretto is about this new world in which we are getting into trade agreements and there are silk roads, shining India and emerging South Africa, but we don’t look at the underbelly, such as migration,” says Sitas, who has a musical group along with Sumangala Damodaran that has released three CDs and explores music from both countries.
The team also comprises Anuradha Kapur, former Director, National School of Drama; Deepan Sivaraman of Ambedkar University; and Reza Khota, a well-known musician from South Africa. The non-linear narrative is connected with songs and speech, with the soundscape spanning Afro-Asian tonalities, from raga to jazz. Twenty students are participating in acting and backstage work.
“The intention of the performance is for vignettes to come together in an experiential way. One of the things I read after this boy threw himself off at Foxconn is that the company considered putting nets,” says Kapur, “rather than changing the practices.”
Sivaraman adds, “Life around the world has become darker for more and more people, especially the marginalised. It is now acceptable to work 16-18 hours in a factory for a woman who is not allowed to go to the toilet. That is the counter effect of a capitalistic structure.”
The play will be held at Ambedkar University, Delhi, on April 18 -19. Entry is free