The day Mamela Nyamza’s new work, Pest Control, premiered on the Virtual National Arts Festival website (on Friday 26 June) was the same day she was meant to hear the arbitration of her dismissal case from the South African State Theatre at the CCMA. Due to a Covid-19 break out at the CCMA, the arbitration has been postponed.
Pest Control carries and amplifies the politics behind her firing. While she awaits adjudication through the courts, Nyamza tells her story with her body and her art. As a dancer and choreographer, Nyamza exemplifies embodied activism. Baring her subjectivities has always been a strength.
Pest Control is autobiographical just like her earliest work, Hatch (2008) later called Hatched (2009) which subjectively looked at her mother, Tozama Nyamza who was raped and murdered in her home and in which she (Mamela) explored her identity as a woman and mother.
While the aesthetics of her previous work have illuminated what Elizabeth Grosz says in Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, about the body being a "site of social, political and geographical inscriptions, production or constitution," Pest Control includes the use of her physical voice as a new move.
The conditions of the times may be the reason for it. With Covid-19 forcing artists to film their work and with contemporary dance often side-lined as being abstract, the use of the voice helps make the work easily accessible. The voice also elevates the emotion of Pest Control and it is necessary in helping Nyamza tell her side of the story.
Included in the production is the speech that got her fired, which she delivered in, Cape Town, her birth place. Cape Town was also the site of another protest; where she together with fellow artists, Chuma Sopotela, Buhlebezwe Siwani and Zikhona Jacobs staged a protest against the under-representation of black artists in the list of nominations for the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards.
The spirit of transformation that she called for at that protest applies in Pest Control. So strong is Nyamza’s emotion that she can be heard lamenting the need to express herself in her mother tongue isiXhosa. Wails of resistance, pain and repulsion can be heard in the intensity of the weight of her chants: RHAA! PHUU! HAAYI!
The show highlights boardroom shenanigans which not only affect women in the arts sector. A boardroom table is a stage enclosed in steel bars which hints at the restricted voices of women in leadership roles.
Nyamza likens her experience to a miscarriage which is depicted as a menstrual stain in her white fencing gear that may well be a heavy bleed. Nyamza was not only an artist in a leadership position, she was also a dancer in an executive position at a theatre institution which was rare and is a great loss to her and the dance community.
Pest Control is protest dance theatre that is raw, direct and as powerful as we have known Nyamza to be. Always resolute with unwavering conviction, she is that itch that demands to be engaged with.