Theatre of burden

The cast is made up of 25 women. They dance and sing in styles that blend African tribal and American gospel. They perform monologues about their lives.
The audience, including 200 schoolchildren, goes wild with cheers and applause.

This is no ordinary piece of theatre. It’s Saturday morning at Johannesburg’s Sun City prison. I’m here to watch a performance by convicted murderers, armed robbers, drug smugglers and fraudsters.

Kgomotso Maine stands up and says: “I’m serving 15 years for murder.” There is an audible gasp in the recreation hall. Maine stabbed her boyfriend to death in a fit of rage after finding him with another woman.

She goes on: “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. But I regret what I’ve done in the past. Now I’m focusing on the future. I want to turn that old scar to shining stars.”

This is the second year that the Medea project, Theatre for Incarcerated Women, has come to South Africa. It’s the brainchild of Rhodes-sa Jones, an American actor, singer, teacher and writer who runs a theatre company in San Francisco. She and her co-director, Idris Ackamoor, work with female prisoners around the world.

Jones (60) said: “Theatre saved my life. I was a 16-year-old girl with a baby. As a black girl in the United States, I could have gone either way. It was my brother who said I want you to meet these people, and they were theatre people, and I could bring my baby.

“All of a sudden I was making theatre and I felt needed. I understood something about what else could be possible in the world. I didn’t have to end up a junkie, I didn’t have to end up an alcoholic, I didn’t even have to end up in an abusive relationship. I could find my voice in the spaces of theatre.”

She and Ackamoor had to work hard at first to bring the women here out of their shells, but their outgoing, can-do spirit evidently rubbed off. The medium-security inmates performing Serious Fun II at Sun City are self-confident, poised and keen to be taken seriously.

They wear white face paint, white T-shirts and—a reminder of where we are—regulation orange trousers that have the word “corrections” printed in circles. Tandeka Mkwanazi (34) is draped in the flag of Swaziland and has a feather in her hair. She says she used to travel the world in her job in group sales and marketing for SABC, the public broadcaster. She blames a Nigerian boyfriend for the discovery of 10kg of ecstasy in a bag she brought from Amsterdam. She was jailed in 2005 and hopes to be out in 2011.

The mother of two sons takes centre stage while the rest of the cast sing a lullaby and mime the cradling of children in their arms. “Mummy is here,” she says. “I’m dedicating this lullaby song to you boys. I remember the days when you were still babies.

“When I look at this front row here, I just see my boys. Let me tell you something: life is about choices. The choices that you make today are the choices that are going to tell you exactly where you will be in five years’ time. Ask yourself, where will you be in five years from now?”

Ellen Dingaan (34) is a beautician and hairdresser, which makes her popular with the prison wardens. The 1,5kg of cocaine she swallowed before flying from Sao Paolo showed up in an X-ray. She finds it suspicious that her contact was a friend of the policewoman who stopped her at Customs. She says she was charged with possession of 80g of cocaine and doesn’t know what happened to the rest.

“I took the risk because at the time I had a serious problem,” she said. “I was living with somebody and he just dumped me and left me with my three kids and all the responsibilities of rent, school fees, everything, and I couldn’t keep up with it. I was promised R50 000 and got R20 000 to pay off some of my bills and buy some Christmas presents for my kids.”

There are songs of repentance and remorse. Joyce Chauke (34), serving seven and a half years for armed robbery, says: “Some people are scared of us. What I ask from the community is to accept us and give us a second chance to show them we have learned from our mistakes. We are ready to face the community. Please accept us.”

The show finishes, the audience rises and there is a cascade of applause. Then the inmates answer questions and urge the children not to follow the same path. A woman from the Market Theatre Laboratory says: “I came here today expecting hardcore criminals and I found women, beautiful women, and that made me cry. It makes me so happy. Thank you.”

A lunch is served, but prison guards gather around the stage to ensure the performers stay where they are. I say goodbye to Jones and drive through the prison grounds, passing a sign that says “Place of new beginnings”. At the exit gate my car boot is opened and checked, and then I head back to the city. The women, presumably, are back in their cells by now.—® Guardian News & Media 2009

A NEW LOOK AT OLD PROS

A group of 25 women burst on to a makeshift stage at Johannesburg’s Sun City jail and yell at the audience: “Attention!” They are wearing orange correctional services trousers and traditional African face paint. They are prisoners, not professional actors, and the stories are their own.

Meanwhile, across town at the Market Theatre, “Sister D” lounges seductively on a couch, wearing pointy high-heeled boots. In the background Eric Clapton sings “You look wonderful tonight” as the woman waits for her next client. The play is called Money Maker. It was written and directed by a man and it purports to be a fictional exposé of the sex industry.
Each play focuses on women whose voices are usually silenced, but that’s where the similarities end.

Serious Fun II at Sun City is a celebration of resilience, created by the prisoners and directed by San Franciso-based Rhodessa Jones, founder of the Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women.

“I wanted to find out if women can find their voice about what hurts them,” says Jones, who first worked with South African prisoners in 2008 as part of the Urban Voices festival.

Desere, a former inmate now on parole, enjoyed the 2008 experience so much that she decided to participate again. Her friend, Thandeka, is also a second-timer. “Ever since I started being part of the play, my fellow inmates see something in me that I never saw in myself,” she says.

Julian Seleke-Mokoto, the man behind Money Maker, didn’t speak to any sex workers before he wrote his play. He says that he wrote it in a week and “relied on what I’d seen on TV and what we all know to write the script”. His words set alarm bells ringing. I can’t help wondering whether it is okay to tell stories about people without involving them.

It’s a strange mix of comedy and intended pathos. At first the characters seem happy to be sex workers, but gradually they break down, confessing how much they hate it.

The play leaves me wondering whether this is a true reflection of reality. But after the show Teri Luboya-Muanza (who plays Vicky) tells me the cast received “positive feedback” from a sex worker. “She came backstage and was crying. She was so excited that she even brought her friends.”

I leave the theatre even more confused, but decide to see it again—this time with a sex worker. I need to hear what she thinks before I can decide whether the play is as offensive as I think it is.

I manage to find someone who agrees to come along but at the last minute she cancels. In the end I attend three perfomances and the cast starts greeting me like a member of the family. Linda Sebezo, who plays “Sister D”, tells me she’ll be off work next week, so could I stand in for her? I’m almost tempted.—Karabo Keepile

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