/ 4 February 1994

Puppets join the battle against abuse

Puppets can’t change the world, but a South African puppetry company is trying its damnedest.

The makers of Puppets Against Aids are now blowing the lid on abuse, battery, incest, marital rape and the whole gamut of domestic violence in their new production, Puppets for Peace.

Puppets can get away with saying things that real actors can’t, says Gary Friedman of the African Research and Educational Puppetry Programme (Arepp), because they are “one step removed from the real world. People are not offended as easily,” he says.

So you have Doreen, a battered puppet wife, saying: “My husband treats me like a piece of shit” — and in a no holds barred incest scene, a father raping his daughter. In another scene, where actors hold rod puppets and perform as a stage, a violent scene of marital rape is depicted.

The puppets become a useful way of dealing with what are often unspoken and hidden crimes. The play will be taken to community venues in some conservative areas where, if real actors are used, its message is likely to be overshadowed by opposition to its risqué contents.

While the puppets may be a step removed from the real world, the play’s first audience in Lenasia last Friday night stepped into the puppets’ world.

In a scene where glove puppets interacted with the narrator, Trevor-Jean le Pierre, telling the story, persuaded Doreen, the puppet wife of a violent and abusive puppet, to go to a counselor, and held her puppet baby while she was in the session, handing the child back when the session was over.

This breaking down of barriers between humans and puppets extended to the audience

During a battery scene, a woman in the audience became angry with the abusive husband exclaiming — You shit!” and “Tch, tch, tch”

The education bit gets into puppetry when Le Pierre declares: “Give everybody the power to speak,” before handing out slips of paper containing the names of various crisis and counselling services to the audience.

The play goes further than Puppets Against Aids by introducing the audience to three kinds of puppetry: shadow puppetry, glove puppetry and rod puppets.

The shadow puppet play tells the tale of a retrenched miner who goes back to his rural home, becomes frustrated and begins to beat his wife. It’s a beautiful kind of puppetry that makes maximum use of shadows and light to get its message and art form across.

Arepp devised the play with Juby Dangor of the Centre for Peace Action who counsels battered and abused women in Lenasia. It is for now “a work in progress” — which, in simple language, means that it still needs a lot of work.

The play was workshopped for only two weeks before being staged in Lenasia on Friday night. The dialogue, storylines and puppeteering are all the work of young people who, until this play, had not touched puppets before.

From here on, Arepp will employ the best actors from the initial workshop on a fulltime basis, polish the play and take it to areas like Soweto, Lenasia and Eldorado Park.

The organisation’s earlier play, Puppets Against Aids, has been running for seven years now, and there is no reason why their new play should not do for battered women and abused children what that play did for Aids education.