The sinking of the SS Mendi in 1917 is one of the greatest maritime disasters to have occurred within British coastal waters, with more than 600 men – mostly members of the South African Native Labour Corps – drowning when the ship went down not far from the Isle of Wight. The shorthand ‘The Black Titanic’ suggests the scale of death but not necessarily the horror: a larger ship, the SS Darro, captained by HW Stump, and travelling too fast, rammed the SS Mendi in dense fog, abandoning the ship and the hundreds of men onboard without attempting a rescue.

SS MendiSS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill. Photo © The Other Richard

“This is our lament for the souls of the dead, to bring them peace,” Zamile Gantana explains to the audience at the beginning of Isango Ensemble’s SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill, a music theatre piece based on the novel by Fred Khumalo from which the show takes its name. As he speaks, quiet voices emerge from the silence of the theatre, a lament that becomes a crescendo of choir and marimba as actors step forward in a roll call of their real names and the English names forced on them by the white man (a series of roles, signified by a white shirt, passed reluctantly between the players).

Directed by Mark Dornford-May, the story unfolds through drama and direct narration on a slanted deck, bristling either side with marimbas, and it is abuse by the colonial powers that underpins this story, from dehumanising punishments to the emasculating refusal to allow black men to wield guns, and ultimately the racist negligence that allowed so many to drown. But the ensemble fashions from this tragedy a defiant – yet also joyous – story of resilience and camaraderie, spun though with music – Music Director Mandisi Dyantyis mingling African laments with choral music, Gilbert and Sullivan-style English romps and a more contemporary musical theatre sound – and dance, in vibrant choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana.

SS MendiSS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill. Photo © The Other Richard

The world of the ship is built in simple, economically produced – but often stunning – sound effects, from bird song to lapping water, in which we see people from African communities with different cultures, languages and beliefs coming together (not without tensions) under extraordinary circumstances. There’s plenty of humour – visual gags and meta-theatrical jokes – alongside the violence and suffering. The ship herself is personified by actor Nolubabalo Mdayi in a number that could have been ripped straight from HMS Pinafore – there’s also delightful mop choreography to a marimba version of the sailor’s hornpipe – while a choral arrangement of Danny Boy is beautifully done. But it’s the South African laments that are most affecting, heartrendingly sung by the cast, while the tragic injustice of the finale, wrought in defiant, driving dance, left the audience shell-shocked. They rose, stunned, for a standing ovation.

While this is a uniquely South African story, what is striking to an Australian audience is the parallel between this piece and the ANZAC stories we tell ourselves: young men joining up to fight in a far off war, coming together to meet what we know in hindsight will be a horrific tragedy with bravery, mateship and irreverent humour. And yet, unlike the Gallipoli campaign, the story of the SS Mendi has been largely obscured, “airbrushed out of the history later taught in schools”, as Dornford-May puts it. A reminder, perhaps, that we owe a debt not only to those who served on the SS Mendi (who were not honoured with medals) but the men and women from this country whose service was obscured by colonial racism, and whose sacrifices are often overlooked in the mainstream narratives of our World War I history.