'The Human Spirit: Apartheid's Unheralded Heroes' to Make World Premiere at L.A.'s Odyssey Theatre

Ed Krieger

Author Carole Eglash-Kosoff's "The Human Spirit," which began as a book of nearly 60 transcribed interviews from her time spent volunteering in South Africa, is now being adapted as a play.

In 2006, author Carole Eglash-Kosoff lost her husband, brother and mother all within 30 days. Grief-stricken and searching for meaning, she volunteered with the American Jewish World Service.

“I called them and said, ‘Can you handle an old broad who’s a bad Jew?' ” Eglash-Kosoff tells The Hollywood Reporter. And handle her they did. She taught schoolchildren for a year in the townships of Cape Town, where she met Helen Lieberman, a volunteer for over 40 years at the time. Eglash-Kosoff returned to the States after a year but went back to South Africa to record nearly 60 interviews, which became her book, The Human Spirit: Apartheid’s Unheralded Heroes. She turned it into a play and workshopped it at the Stella Adler Theatre last September; The Human Spirit is making its world premiere at L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre, running June 7-29.

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“It started with this one Jewish woman who started helping them open preschools,” Eglash-Kosoff says of Lieberman, who sometimes is referred to as the Mother Theresa of South Africa. Her charitable efforts have grown into Ikamva Labantu (The Future of Our Nation), South Africa’s largest nongovernmental social service agency.

As a speech therapist working in the Groote Schuur Hospital in the early '60s, Lieberman's travels led her to Langa Township, a shantytown beset with the horrors of poverty, to locate a baby who had been a patient. The experience changed her life.

“She had access to some of the basic medicines from the hospital that were nonexistent in the townships,” explains Eglash-Kosoff about Lieberman’s work. The play’s characters include like-minded volunteers -- Millie, Sipho, Tutu and Philip -- who worked with Lieberman to help ensure the most vulnerable in the community, the old, young and infirm, get basic care. Their efforts grew into a formidable grassroots army of caregivers known as the “Mamas,” one of Ikamva Labantu’s greatest achievements.

Nelson Mandela was in jail and the other activists were either in jail or fled the country,” Eglash-Kosoff says of the period covered in the play. “The blacks had been forced out of integrated communities into these townships. There was no infrastructure, there was no sanitation, there was nothing for the children.”

By the 1990s, HIV/AIDS had infected roughly 100,000 mostly poor people, leaving many orphaned. So the Mamas stepped in with foster care and training for the old on how to parent their grandchildren.

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According to Eglash-Kosoff, by the time she arrived in 2007, the efforts of the Mamas had affected the lives of 25,000 children with food products, better health care and additional schools. Since 2010, she has self-published four books, but this is her first play.

“The first version of the play had a lot of monologues and was rather static,” she says with some perspective after last fall’s workshop. “When you go to put it down as a stage play and you know it’s going to be spoken and acted out, it’s a totally different art form. I had to modify the characters and bring out the emotions that only live theater can give you.”

In the eight years since becoming a widow, Eglash-Kosoff finds herself with a new life as charity worker and author, but she grimly remembers the aftermath of her husband’s death and her drastic decision to become a volunteer.

“It was quite a shock. You’re ten thousand miles away from family and support,” she recalls with a frown, but then looks up and smiles. “And then you get up the next morning and you start teaching.”