The war we wage on our women

2012-03-02 09:28

Of her self-penned Shwele Bawo – translated as A Grave Injustice – Motshabi Tyelele says: “I hear these voices. They are not far from me, whether it’s friends, neighbours or relatives. You see jealous boyfriends; women with black eyes.”

The piece, which she wrote in 2004, has been performed before, but it is a play that, alas, won’t lose it’s relevance any time soon. It reflects the plight of South African women, but she is careful not to victimise her characters or indeed treat complex social problems simplistically.

“I wrote this at a time in my life when every time I read the paper there was a story about an abused woman or an abused child and it was just too much.”

She begins with a monologue inspired by a woman she met. The woman had chosen beer as her husband after a pretty rocky time with a real one.

“I wondered what makes a woman, for want of a better phrase, give herself to alcohol?”

The play, which is a two-hander – though Tyelele’s co-star, Mary Makhatho, is silent throughout – is emotionally powerful. Every woman who features – from the mother who encourages her daughter to ensnare a rich man, to the teen doing just that, to the female relatives who describe husbands as axes to be “lent and borrowed”, to the awful racist white neighbour – are women you know. These characters provide both shock and plenty of laughter – something needed to get through protagonist Dikeledi Nkabinde’s story.

Set in a courtroom, the play begins with Dikeledi – which means Tears – being convicted of murder. Her story is intertwined with those of the women in her life and her beginnings as a pretty teenager who catches the eye of an aging cradle snatcher. Her married life begins well with Gucci, a luxury SUV and a Tuscan palace in the northern suburbs. But when the axe keeps getting borrowed, she starts shopping for bandages and ice packs.

In some places it feels a little overwritten, as though Tyelele is unsure whether the audience has got the point she has made – they always have. It is impossible as a South African to watch this and not acknowledge the war we are waging on our women.

When Tyelele showed the play to friends and colleagues she got interesting responses.

“The black men said I was hard on culture, the white ones said I didn’t need the white character. The women all said I should leave it exactly as it is.”

Tyelele argues that she is not attacking men, saying that she has many good male role models in her life. Rather, she is trying to start the conversation we all so desperately need to have around issues of abuse and sexual politics.

“We must open ourselves more and not be defensive. We have a crisis. There is no use being in denial. Something needs to be done, especially when it comes to the children. What happens to these children?

“It has to start somewhere and dialogue keeps things from getting bottled up. Let’s celebrate life and do something, have an ‘a-ha’ moment.”

Tyelele, whom many will know from her high-profile TV work as Sophie in Generations and Eve in Madam and Eve, is mesmerising on stage. She effortlessly morphs from one character to another, capturing the essence of each and never settling for caricature.

Directed by Lynne Maree, one of the cleverest aspects of this play is Sarah Roberts’ set design, which hints at the prison bars while populating the stage with cardboard characters who hold the props, while Makhatho silently fills a plethora of roles.

Funny often, emotionally real and relevant always, Shwele Bawo is a play that deserves to be seen and talked about – much like the thousands of women and children whose voices go unheard.

» Shwele Bawo is currently
at The Market Theatre’s Barney Simon Theatre until March 18. Book at Computicket
» Follow me on Twitter @GayleMahala

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