In a world rushing breathlessly towards globalisation — especially since the United States’s ‘liberation” of Iraq — the need for particular, localised voices is more imperative than ever. This came sharply into focus for me last week as I watched At Her Feet (the title derives from an Islamic maxim: ‘Paradise lies at the feet of your mother”), a wonderfully fresh and invigorating one-woman play that pitches a diverse, entertaining set of Cape Muslim women, their prejudices, histories and foibles, against each other.
Quanita Adams portrays Nadia Davids’s iridescent script with captivating wit and pathos.The catalyst for the unfolding debate the play sets up is provided by a faraway event, brought into these women’s lives, ironically, by American TV: the death by stoning of a Jordanian girl, killed for transgressing the strictly observed Islamic socio-sexual codes of that part of the world.
We trace these women’s responses. For Sara, a university-educated twentysomething, the stoning throws her faith into crisis; for her mother, conservative Auntie Kariema (a delicious, crowd-pleasing cameo from Adams), the event confirms the rightness of Islamic codes, but at the same time its oddity when practised by those in alien lands. For Sara’s best friend Aeysha, avowedly an ‘African-Marxist terrorist”, the Jordanian’s death asserts the atavism and irrelevance of her forefathers’ faith. My account of the range of voices heard does not do justice to the subtlety and richness of Davids’s script, nor to the infectious vitality of Adams’s performance. This is no didactic exchange of views; these are living,
distinct women, each speaking a marvellously grounded idiom. Moreover, the positions they strike are gratifyingly complex: the speeches bristle with dialogic energy, which is to say that different positions jostle for place within, as well as between, each woman’s discourse. Thus, Auntie Kariema loves Islam, but despises her Indian co-religionists down the road; Sara is embarrassed by Muslim rectitude, but reveres
its spirituality; timid, conventional Tahira zealously keeps the holy days, and looks forward to wearing Armani outfits after Eid. Most tellingly, the ‘Africanist” Aeysha forges a feminist take on her faith, paradoxically nourished by the towering strength of traditional Islamic women. Adams renders all these people and their postures with flair, energy and good humour, finding the vocal and gestural tics that mark character. At Her Feet is that rare local wonder: richly dialogic theatre, which triumphantly gives tongue to a set of voices barely heard in public discourse. It
is a brilliant, precocious theatrical achievement.But there’s a problem. Davids’s skilful construction takes us to a breathless point of climax, a personal assertion full of stirring, cross-cultural wit; then we are visited by a further scene that dissipates the excitement and fudges our sense of resolution. Davids must not allow a desire to air every voice to overwhelm dramaturgical fitness: at the moment, this is another South African play that doesn’t know when to stop.
At Her Feet is on at the Baxter Theatre Centre, Tel: (021) 685 7870, until June 27 before moving to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown