Understanding difference

2009-01-06 00:00

BETWEEN Cup and Lip explores the close relationship that develops between a woman and her domestic worker in one of the most intense periods of South African history.

A fictional account of the real-life relationship between playwright Kemble Elliott and Angelina Kunene, the woman who became a second mother to her children, the play (which is being staged at the Bat Hall Theatre in Durban as part of this year’s Musho Festival) is a series of heartfelt conversations over a cup of tea at the kitchen table.

Speaking to me from her home in Johannesburg, mum of three, Elliott, explained how the play came about: “I have the most amazing relationship with Angie, my domestic worker. I wrote a book of 80-odd poems, called Twixt Cup and Lip, detailing our relationship and what happened to us over a period of 15 years. Yvette [director Yvette Hardie] read the poems and suggested I write a play.

“Writing the poems was an intensely personal experience. They only took about a month to write, but then stayed in my drawer for about four years. I self-published the book because I wanted to give all the money it raised to Angie. Writing the play took about eight weeks through the Pansa [Performing Arts Network of South Africa] workshop, which was an amazing experience, then another two months to get it polished and ready.

“Seeing Between Cup and Lip performed on stage for the first time was probably one of the most intensely emotional experiences of my life. Angie sat next to me, we held hands and cried. It’s a very emotional story and there were lots of highs and lows in those 15 years.”

The story, which covers the period from 1987 to 1994, explores the intricacies of learning to understand someone whose life experience is so different from one’s own, with all its unique tragedies and triumphs. Playing the roles of Kate and Miriam are Frances Marek Slabolepszy, the daughter of Paul Slabolepszy, and Ntomboxolo Mkhutshi.

Johannesburg-based Hardie, who directs the piece, said both actresses are very special, adding: “They have worked together before so they already have a very strong sense of ensemble. This play is such a delicate piece and relies on the interaction of the two actresses and their ability to listen to each other. They have created something amazing.”

She added that the play has also been something of a personal journey for the pair — and more especially for Mkhutshi, whose mother was a domestic worker. “She has lived through many of the issues explored in the play,” Hardie said.

Commenting on the story, she said: “It’s very universal — it’s about the friendship between two women from different worlds, who rely on each other in different ways. It also looks at the barriers that exist between races, whether or not you want them to.

“It’s a story that has not really been told in South Africa. Normally stories like this are told from a political point of view. I believe it will resonate with people.”

Between Cup and Lip was staged at the Grahamstown Festival last year, where it met with a positive response, and Kemble and Hardie are hoping that KwaZulu-Natal audiences will respond equally well to the play. But Elliott has another, more personal, reason for wanting the show to be a success.

“My ultimate goal is to build Angie a home. That’s why I wrote the book and the play,” she explained. “I think it’s a tragedy that she has never had her own home. She now lives in Diepsloot — she moved there to be eligible for RDP housing six or seven years ago, but nothing has happened.

“She lives in a shack with her daughters, Precious, who is nearly 20, and Lillibet [Elizabeth] who is 16. It’s a very insecure existence. [But] she is amazing — she ran away from home at a young age because of abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, and from nothing has raised five children on her own. She also has to deal with the fact that she is HIV-positive. I think her story is symbolic for many South African women.”

HOW TO BOOK

Between Cup and Lip is at the Bat Hall Theatre on January 15 at 8 pm and January 16 at 6 pm. To book tickets, phone Thandeka at the Catalina Theatre at 031 305 6889. Alternatively, buy them online at www.strictlytickets.com or www.goingplacessa.co.za or www.goingplacessa.com

The Musho Festival runs until January 18 at the Bat Centre

and the Catalina Theatre at Wilson’s Wharf. The full

programme is available at www.mushofestival.co.za

Kemble Elliot (writer)

• Kemble Elliott has been involved in arts education for most of her life. She studied drama and English at Rhodes University and then became a teacher. She is currently the deputy principal of the Crawford School in Fourways, Johannesburg, and is very involved with the NGO Creative Voices.

Yvette hardie (director)

• Yvette Hardie is a theatre producer, director, teacher, writer and actor, who has been active in the world of theatre training and

performance, across a variety of arenas.

She is currently the South African producer of the Colonnades Theatre Lab’s international theatre piece, Truth in Translation, which tells the story of the interpreters at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. With music by Hugh Masekela and direction by Michael Lessac, the production travels the world in order to serve as a catalyst for dialogue and change. She has toured with the piece to Rwanda, the Edinburgh Festival, the United States, Sweden, Belfast and within South Africa itself.

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