Rough treatment for South African classic
Play s coarseness leaves one feeling brutalised, writes Robyn Sassen
F you know the oppressive confessionary nature of a women ’ s beauty salon and were alive just before South Africa became democratic, you ’ ll appreciate the harsh poetics flung at the audience in this classic play, which has been revived 25 years after it set stages afire locally and abroad.
But for some utterly magnificent contralto singing and juxtapositions of values to make your head spin, this production of Sue Pam-Grant’s play — which she designed and directed this time around — is rough and lacks nuance.
It’s 1989, Joubert Park. Everything stinks of state-ofemergency violence. We’re in a down-at-heel salon, with hairdresser Rolene (Quanita Adams) and her domestic, Miriam (Hlengiwe LushabaMadlala). The clientele comprises local riffraff and residents: Charmaine (Cindy Swanepoel) is addicted to Welconal, the hardest drug on the streets of Johannesburg at the time; Dudu (Lesedi JobSmith) is a nursing sister at Park Lane Clinic and familiar with forced eviction. Mrs Du Bois (Robert Colman) is a verkrampte caretaker in a “white ” block of flats, holding so firmly to her political biases that even her knuckles show white.
Conversation skitters around gossipy issues of the day against the background of the horrors of abuse, evictions and injustice.
Rolene is central to the narrative, but Adams approaches the character with a heavy-handedness that eventually becomes difficult to
Iwatch. Her persona mixes street smarts with a bravado that, but for one moment of utter theatrical beauty, is relentlessly shrill.
Dancing on the knife edge of passing for white in a society in which anything not white is considered a gevaar, she’s trapped between an abusive white partner and the educated sympathy of a black nursing sister.
Charmaine, a helpless bit of white trash, is not devoid of empathy, but she is so messed up and selfish that she doesn’t evoke sympathy. Coarse and harsh, she enters and exits the narrative, her violent neediness streaming around her like an aura. Her presence is a theatrical device to interrupt political dialogue with an ugliness as basic and reprehensible as drug-induced vomit in a public place.
Mrs du Bois is a character written to hold a mirror to many white South Africans of the 1980s. In 2013 she’s an embarrassing dinosaur with cringeworthy bias.
In Colman’s hands, her reality occasionally teeters over the top, but there are moments when the character is so perfect you would recognise her on the street.
The new customer, Dudu, brings a dignity of restraint to the latter part of the play, lending the work the nuance it lacks in the first half. She comes into her own as the work ’ s temperature rises; you notice her in its eerie prologue, which presents the women as silent ghouls in nightdresses.
However, it is the menial role of Miriam, as crafted and developed in Lushaba-Madlala’s hands, that lifts the show. In a couple of duets in word, choreography and song, her character and that of Job-Smith soar with a grace that makes tears run down your cheeks.
Other than a moment of horrifying realisation in which Adams ’ s voice becomes a gruff, incredulous sob, the play’s tone shouts across the cracked maroon 1980s swivel chairs of the salon and into the audience like an assault.
The play is stripped of artifice. Even hairstyles are mimed, a device that is not consistently convincing. Instead of the kitchen-sink drama of the 1980s, the work has been cast in a Brechtian mould for this production.
It is potently reinvented with a rough sense of the sacred, but what you’re left with is perplexing. Your head tires of the violence. Your heart too.
Your attention begins to wane, until the play’s denouement in which politics and church song implode in a way that inspires all around it.
This play is a must-see for Lushaba-Madlala ’ s ability to lift and heal the space.