A second year University of Cape Town drama student, Maninzi Kwatshube, brought a moving piece of theatre to the Savanna Trust hosted festival, Protest Arts International Festival (PAIF). This is the fourth edition of the festival and it ran under the theme ‘Imagining and Re-Inventing the Future’. When Maninzi heard about PAIF, she thought there was no better opportunity to protest against African notions of beauty.
Maninzi collaborated with Nkule Mabaso, a fellow UCT Fine art student, who made the braids (which Maninzi used as part of the props) for her BA project. Maninzi took it upon herself to create a performance using the material that Mabaso had provided. Maninzi played Rapunzel, a character who represents Nkule Mabaso. Rapunzel is trapped in a desolate and unforgiving environment. She explores the female experience of the city, negotiating the fragile balance of fear and survival, of wanting to be desired and the fear of being desirable.
Zimbabwean audiences are ‘haunted’ by the ghost of previous performances at Theatre in the Park. All performances that come to this venue, with a few possible exceptions, use dialogue together with other performance forms such as dance, mime and song. On 27 October 2012, Zimbabwean audiences brought with them the residue memory of those previous performances, which they obviously wanted to use to appreciate a new performance coming from South Africa, Black Threat. However, they had a rude awakening when they were confronted by a performance that began and ended without a single word spoken. Maninzi, playing Rapunzel, never mimed, danced or sang. She chose to be a slave to the properties that adorned the set.
Black Threat proposed new distinctive conventions, that is rules imposed by the performance itself and hence unknown to the audience. The beauty of distinctive conventions is that they add a new experiential memory for future use. In this new theatre, at least to Zimbabwe, it is no longer the story/plot/action, but the ‘game’ that becomes the generative matrix. In Black Threat, the game involves applying makeup, wearing a wig of braids and playing with it till it infuriates Rapunzel. The audience left with a number of questions. What was it they had just seen? Was it theatre or not? What kind of theatre? Can theatre take place without recourse to the spoken word?
In the performance Rapunzel’s hair represents all the repressive elements that hinder her femininity on the one hand and on the other hand, the hair functions as the gross bodily extension that is meant to increase her attractiveness. The hair also functions as a tower of conceit and self-hatred from which she must escape as her hair keeps her imprisoned in a cycle of self-hatred and ill-confidence.
When the audience got into the venue, the performance had already begun, contrary to tradition where a performance begins after the audience has settled. Rapunzel, played by Maninzi was sitting on an African reed mat applying makeup on her lips, eyes, face, body and legs. Faint warmers illuminated this figure in the centre of a theatre in the round.
The door leading to the set was made of plaited braids. Each member of the audience touched these braids as they entered the space, giving the braids a ritualistic significance quite unsettling for religious audiences. The braids extended to the ground and wound around an opened makeup box revealing all the paraphernalia, from which Maninzi occasionally drew more makeup.
There was a pre-recorded audio playing from a computer which was visible on set and operated by a person visible to the audience. It was a chat between Nkule and Nkanyisile which was recorded in one of the University of Cape Town residences. They were talking about African and Coloured identities as they were defined in the 1950 Population Registration Act. What came out was the segregation amongst Coloured communities. The standard preferred identity was the Coloured with straight long hair typical of population groups with Malay blood. Coloureds with black parents were ‘othered’ in both Coloured and Black communities. Nkule and Nkanyisile laughed, cried, complained, despaired and celebrated in the background. No visuals were used.
While the audio chat was going on, Maninzi pursued action of a different type, not based on satisfying a want, but playing a game with braids and pants hung on the line. When her figure was fully illuminated, she set facing the entrance and applying more makeup. She knelt down, head on the ground, in what seemed like a prayerful gesture and began to worship the braids. She did it a few more times and ended the routine with a burst of energy which loosened a loop and released the braids from the door.
The rest of the performance centres around Rapunzel fashioning The Black Threat (title of the mass of artificial dreadlocks) into a dress that she climbs into and lounge around in, and admires her beauty and desirability until she realizes that is she is trapped and needs to escape but there is no escape, and so she exhausts herself fighting the towering dress she has built until she is free but only to start all over again in different spaces that represent different ills. The things that make a city more familiar and less alien are not the concrete or other physical markers, but the relationships and the people and the associations we make with that place.
It was an excruciating experience where an object of adornment turned into an object of horror and torture. A member of the audience sitting just above me couldn’t hide his exasperation and shouted ‘women are in trouble!’ I felt the urge to stand up and relieve her of the weight she was carrying, but remembered it was a performance. At that moment, another shocking experience happened. Maninzi decided to take off the cloth wound around her body. This revealed her whole body with only a brown tight pant covering the essentials. This was quite unsettling for a conservative Zimbabwean audience. The closest, a performer came to nudity was when Tinopona Katsande took off her g-string and threw it on the floor as she maintained her position inside the blankets, while playing in Noel Marerwa’s Hot Water Bottle. Maninzi dressed up in pink bra and pants in full view of the audience. She put on a leopard skin coloured trousers and matching high heeled shoes. She started modelling in this costume nearly falling on several occasions. She seemed to attack all symbols of African feminine beauty. Hair and its connection to attractiveness plays a large part of how black women project themselves out to the world and into the future. The underlying implications of the fake hairs that they adorn and the unconscious or conscious desire to resemble white women in order to be seen as attractive and socially acceptable is problematised.
Maninzi finally decided to put on a matching top, but with each attempt, the long braids prevented her from wearing what she wanted to. She tried several times and realising the futility of the exercise, she started stripping again violently. She turned the makeup box upside down scattering its contents all over the set. She removed the braids and threw them in a heap together with the high heeled shoes. She wound a cloth with ethnic colours around her head leaving the top part revealing her trimmed African hair. The blouse could now fit her body. The audience sensed the end and clapped hands bringing closure to the show.
The idea was to refocus on the ‘traditional’ ideas of beauty and its construction; how black women define their attractiveness through foreign standards which effectively ‘other’ them. Was this theatre, the audience wondered? Mabaso calls her piece ‘contemporary performance’, while others call it ‘live art’ or ‘performance art’. Theatre of a physical nature has been taken as ‘contemporary dance’ and relegated to dance spaces such as 7 Arts in Avondale. This has limited its scope of penetration in Zimbabwe. Lloyd Nyikadzino is now involved in various workshops to train Zimbabwean theatre makers in the art of physical theatre. Stanley Mambo, through Conquered Plans has attempted to mainstream physical theatre. Ravengai has already directed Tirivangani and is currently deconstructing Magwa’s Njuzu [Merman] to create theatre of a physical nature. Maninzi’s Black Threat has introduced a new creative vibe that could see Zimbabwean theatre moving into a fundamentally new direction.