A funnier and lighter script

2008-05-13 00:00

WHEN I reviewed Ben Voss’s satirical Beauty and the B.E.E. last year, I found plenty to laugh at. But I was uncomfortable with the concept — a white man in character as a black woman. I said so in the review, and found myself in a minority. Voss took issue with me on the Witness website and a couple of readers also voiced their disagreement.

So when the play opened at the Sneddon Theatre in Durban last month, I went along to have another look. This time, I was less bothered — I found the play funnier and my sensitivity antennae hardly quivered. So — have I become less squeamish, or has Voss changed his script? Those were the first questions I put to him when we met for lunch a couple of weeks ago.

“Yes, I’ve changed some things,” says Voss. “I respect your comments, and the issue has been the biggest thing I’ve grappled with. After the review, I spoke to Janice (Janice Honeyman, the director of the show), and we decided what to do.”

That meant some changes to the way Voss portrays Beauty Ramapelepele, the newly crowned Businesswoman of the Year. Voss had originally given the story some pathos — Beauty was having marital problems and had more of a back story to place her in a realistic context. But Voss decided that as a white man, he wasn’t getting a real black woman’s perspective. And so he has made the script lighter and funnier. “I’m not trying too hard to be a black woman now,” he says.

However, Voss/Beauty recently scored a hit as a black woman on East Coast Radio. Before the Durban run, Voss got into one of his flashy Beauty costumes and went along to the studios to ask ECR head Naveen Singh to publicise the show. “I said, ‘What’s the matter — I’m a successful businesswoman, and I can’t get a meeting with you guys’. So he said I could have one phone call, in character, and they would judge the response from there.”

Those who listened know that Beauty became a minor celebrity on ECR, talking about the Black Journalists’ Forum, racism and the Free State University row. ECR got a lot of calls — from both blacks and whites, among them white callers who thought Beauty was talking a lot of sense.

“That worried me a bit — it takes us back to the whole question you raised. Was I now affirming white values through a black voice?” But, when he did reveal who he really was, most people from all sides enjoyed the joke. “One thing I was really pleased about was that no-one, black or white, picked up on the accent. They genuinely thought I was a black woman.”

The ECR experience made Voss realise that people draw a picture of who they hear and their vision of the person behind the voice validates what they hear. It is a lesson in the power of radio.

Voss knows he is doing something tricky with Beauty, but if she succeeds — and the signs are good — he would like her to become his alter ego, a character he can keep using. He has emceed functions as Beauty, doing sketches and scoring a hit with more mixed audiences than he has had in theatres. “Maybe I need to take serious risks — take the show to Soweto,” he says.

Just at the moment, however, Beauty is playing second fiddle to Voss, who got married between the Durban and Hillcrest runs of the play. With Hillcrest being followed by the Hexagon, the honeymoon will only happen in July.

And then in September, Voss has a month’s run with Mamba, which he now performs with James Cunningham, at the Wimbledon Theatre in South London.

Voss’s brother — whose day job is heading the Marine Archaeology Unit at Oxford University — is producing. It is not the first time the brothers have worked together. While they were studying at the University of KwaZulu-Natal — Voss doing a mechanical engineering degree while his brother studied classics — the pair raised money from the Greek embassy to take a production of Oedipus to Grahamstown.

And his writing collaboration with John van de Ruit — his co-author of the Mamba comedies and now writing the third novel in the phenomenally successful Spud series — still continues. But, for now, it is with Beauty that Voss sees his stage future.

He is opening up a new area, and theatre can be a powerful tool. Voss really wants black audiences to go to see Beauty, and engage afterwards with her creator.

• ‘Beauty and the B.E.E.’ runs at the Hexagon Theatre from May 21 to 24 (following its run at the Heritage Theatre in Hillcrest from May 12-18). Tickets are R60 and to book, e-mail hexagon@ukzn.ac.za or phone 033 260 5537. Tickets are also available at the door before each show. Shows are at 7.30 pm on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and at 6 pm on Friday. Friday’s show is followed by dinner for those wishing to stay. Contact the theatre for more details.

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