What do you do if you suddenly wake up after sleeping in a cave for 309 years? That is what happens to the characters in Walid Al Alphy's stage play People of the cave, performed on 25 September 2009 in the Rotterdam theatre in the International Choice programme. These characters once fled from an unjust sultan, and 309 years later little has changed. A portable radio in the cave announces attacks, plagues and war. One by one, each of the men declares himself the new sultan and asks those remaining to hand in their property in exchange for women, cattle and weapons. None of them ever returns, and the last man is left standing alone with nothing in the dark cave.
That the play is sending a political statement will be clear: power corrupts, the individual citizens are the victims. In Al Alphy's homeland, Sudan, the consequences of that fact are still painfully present. People of the cave, however, is not a simple play about perpetrators and victims. Al Alphy: "In Sudan, everyone is part of the war. There are perpetrators and victims, but beneath that there is shared responsibility. The new sultans in People of the cave threaten their followers, but the followers themselves are afraid to leave the cave to see the world with their own eyes. They remain in their dormant state."
The director is convinced that theatre can be a powerful awareness tool. He describes his performances as keys with which society's secret places can be opened. With the actors and his long-standing decor builder Hatim Babikem, he begins each piece with conversations. What do they want to talk about? Everyone is responsible for both the form and the content: the actors help in the costume designs, the designer contributes thoughts about the text.
Theatre of this type is seldom seen in Sudan, says Al Alphy. It is not traditional and not commercial, people find it difficult to label it and that sometimes makes it nearly impossible to produce. People of the cave has been performed in Sudan only once. Al Alphy, however, has great faith in the importance of his plays. After his previous play, about a village burned to the ground in Dafur, was staged, all of the audience members climbed the stage to emotionally discuss the play and to thank him. "These may be pinpricks of light in the darkness", he says, "but they are pointing in a certain direction, and people start moving, and to move is what they need".