Just as the lights in Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre dim, you see the audience shift in their seats, their jewellery a distant glimmer as your eyes frisk around the impinging darkness. Breathless faces are eager to see legendary playwright Barney Simon’s hit, Born in the RSA.
Aside from the actors, there are only two other black people in the theatre tonight – the rest of the audience is white and older than 65, at a guess.
Light falls on the stage and the play opens with a monologue by Emily Child as Mia Steinman, the lawyer turned anti-apartheid activist. Moments later, in comes lead Thenjiwe, played by Faniswa Yisa, and with her a bittersweet melody – ironic and loaded – reminiscent of the days of apartheid resistance, the era in which this play was originally staged.
Afterwards, Yisa and I meet at the coffee shop downstairs.
“Did you see them?” she says, laughing. “Did you see how they were crying?”
“Yes, I did. It was strange.”
After graduating from the University of Cape Town’s school of drama, Yisa joined The Mothertongue Project, which was founded by one of her lecturers, Sara Matchett.
“We started creating work mainly for women and written by women because we felt there was a need,” she says.
“Theatre is very much dominated by white males, and most of it is written from a male perspective. Historically, the roles were very stereotypical … The housewife was a white woman who’s either an alcoholic or is constantly medicated, and the black woman is always her maid.
“My mother was a maid for the longest time and I do have respect for the job, but it’s not all that she was or all that we are. What you see in theatre is that the maid has become some kind of comic relief. She’s made to seem as though she doesn’t possess agency, isn’t complicated, just ‘ooh eh-eh’. If someone could write me a maid who had the same dignity that my mom had, the same drive and work ethic and the love that she possessed, then we would be telling another story.”
As we pay, she tells me to look up Koleka Putuma.
I meet Putuma at Cafe Ganesh in Cape Town.
“I got into poetry first. In matric, I fell into dramatic arts. I had the belief that the universe could never put a gift inside of you for you to go in another direction.”
She is what has come to define the millennial in the age of Twitter. She is black-girl magic – young and talented with zero fucks to give.
“I was more involved in writing and directing. After putting together a theatre piece for our church, I remember the standing ovation and the feeling. Back then, it was superficial. The high you get from that affirmation is so exhilarating, especially in a world that tells black children all the time that you won’t amount to anything.”
During her final year at university, she and four classmates showed their play, titled Uhm, at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. By November, it had been picked up by Artscape to run for two weeks. One morning she woke up to the news that she had been nominated for the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards for best new director.
“I didn’t win, but it didn’t matter. Here I was, a young, black, female theatre practitioner among all these men.”
At this year’s fest, a strange play stole most of the spotlight. It was called Similar To, written by Genna Gardini, a 2012 Ovation Award winner for Winter Sweet. She’s the co-founder of Horses’ Heads Productions with her longtime friend Gary Hartley.
“We wanted to do weird work that we liked,” she says.
“In writing Similar To, we were making a story about these two people who are seen as ‘other’ because they are queer … but at the same time both those bodies are white bodies, so they are still afforded the privilege of their whiteness.
“I can’t equate that to how different it would be if these were black bodies on stage because that is not my experience … I was raised as a privileged white person and I benefit a lot from that. I can’t attempt to write about black women’s experiences.”
The play is the brainchild of Gardini, Hartley and actress Zanne Solomon. It began with Hartley and Solomon’s obsession with online games and became a theatrical exploration of the digital space as one where you can try out identities. In many ways, it begins to shape content away from historical narratives that we’ve grown accustomed to.
A few days later, I am interviewing Sara Matchett over email. The senior lecturer at UCT’s drama department and artistic director at The Mothertongue Project is in India writing her doctoral thesis.
“The biggest challenge in running Mothertongue is funding,” Sara writes. “Perhaps there are still too many men who occupy positions of power in funding institutions, theatres, academic institutions and the like. The media and other critical commentators on theatre often support male-centric positions as the norm when addressing audiences … Women’s stories are often framed within the realm of gender activism and not considered as an experience asserted on its own terms.”
Women make up the majority of students in tertiary drama institutions in South Africa, but most drama departments are headed by men.
“If the majority of students graduating from drama programmes are women, where are they when it comes to occupying positions of power?” asks Matchett.
If we are truly invested in gender equality in this country, perhaps by phasing out the old boys’ club mentality (with the old boys in tow) in theatre and the creative arts in university, we might avert what UCT lecturer Yvonne Banning, in an article that was published in The Contemporary Theatre Review in 1999, identified as “[an] educational system [which] is male top-heavy … almost exclusively white, [where] women are employed predominantly in the lowest-paid positions”.
The women I spoke to for this story are certainly doing their part.
**First appeared in City Press**