Saartjie lives, so does Khwezi

Saartjie vs Venus - Lebo Mashile and vocalist Ann Masina.Picture: Sara Chitambo
Saartjie vs Venus - Lebo Mashile and vocalist Ann Masina.Picture: Sara Chitambo

The spirit of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo shone brightly on The Market theatre stage on Thursday night in Johannesburg. An image of a smiling Kuzwayo, better known to the world as Khwezi, the woman persecuted for accusing former president Jacob Zuma of rape, was projected on to the stage of the now full-length theatre production of Venus vs Modernity, which staged its first audience preview ahead of its official opening on Wednesday.

The image appears behind opera and gospel singer and theatre performer Ann Masina as she sings an exquisite rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, but with “our mother” replacing “our father” throughout.

The play was created, originally with the support of Design Indaba and the Windybrow Arts Centre, by the fiery poet, recording artist and now playwright Lebo Mashile and Masina, a darling of the global theatre scene.

“It’s wonderful to be able to perform at home,” said the opera star in a brief conversation, which was moderated by the beautifully styled Dr T, the women’s sexual health advocate, author and medical doctor Tlaleng Mofokeng.

It is the first time in almost two decades that the Witbank-born Masina has enjoyed an extended run in South Africa. She has created her own opera company and graced the covers of art sections across the world, and has starred in productions by South African theatre makers including William Kentridge and Robyn Orlin.

Venus vs Modernity, staged at a bruising time in the country as women rally online and in protest marches to demand awareness of sexual violence, follows on the heels of another powerful feminist production recently on at The Market, Koleka Putuma’s searing No Easter Sunday for Queers. In fact, Putuma took over the direction of Venus vs Modernity after Pamela Nomvete, the original director, relocated to London.

On stage, the two women slay the elephant in the room.

“People have always used my weight as a subject of deflection,” said Mashile afterwards.

Exploring the Saartjie Baartman story as a Wits student, she said, “helped me understand that what I was experiencing was what black women have been experiencing for centuries”.

Baartman, who was captured and taken into slavery in Cape Town at the age of 15, died at the age of 25 in Paris, a specimen ogled and studied in particular because of her buttocks. But Mashile and Masina, both playing aspects of Baartman, update the story by referencing women as diverse as Lebo Mathosa and Kuzwayo.

Read: Read: Zuma takes aim at Redi Tlhabi, says she wants to label him a rapist

Masina – in a spangled skin-coloured bodysuit designed by pop sensation Moonchild Sanelly – slips effortlessly between prayer, opera and pop, and Mashile delivers new monologues framing the creativity and artistry of Baartman – who even twerks on stage – instead of the usual study of pseudo anthropological display and racist science.

“I think she saw herself as a beautiful woman, and that’s how I play her,” Masina said.

Mashile, in response to Dr T’s comments on the spiciness of an imagined sex scene with a Haitian sailor and former slave, said: “We show her body as a site of sexual pleasure as well.”

Let’s face it, we’ve been a rape factory ever since the VOC [the Dutch East India Company]

But Venus vs Modernity hits hard at history, revisiting the sexual abuse of the slave quarters in Cape Town in Baartman’s time.

Speaking to the climate in South Africa right now, Mashile said: “Let’s face it, we’ve been a rape factory ever since the VOC [the Dutch East India Company].”

The play will be published by BlackBird Books, says Mashile, and will head to Amsterdam after The Market, where it is booked on the Pan-African arts festival, Afrovibes.

  • The production runs nightly until September 28

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