Reimagining the lens of land

The question of land is no longer left to politicians. Very recently, “the land” has become the property of the public, at least in terms of the way it has been infused into the vocabulary of contemporary popular culture.

A good example would be the infamous incident at the Obz Café in Cape Town last year when Fallist Ntokozo Qwabe wrote: “We will give tip when you return the land” underneath his bill. This of course led to a very public case of tears, R44 777.70 being raised for the white waiter, and “the land” remaining a question hanging above the collective confusion and debate.

Nwabisa Plaatjie (Jesse Kramer)

For Nwabisa Plaatjie, a young director and actor, it is clear that: “We can’t talk about the land without engaging with the body, and I’m talking about the female body. I’m talking about the physical body and the limitations and the fears, and the stories, and the narratives, and the politics that go along with it.”

Plaatjie, who recently, as a recipient of the Theatre Arts Admin Collective’s emerging theatre director bursary, staged Reimagining the Native Who Caused All the Trouble.

Her take was an adaptation of The Native Who Caused All the Trouble, a play written by Vanessa Cooke, Danny Keogh and Fink Haysom. It debuted at the Market Theatre in 1983 and was adapted into a film in 1989.

The play is based on a true story about a Mosotho man named Tselilo who, in 1937, claimed a plot of land in Cape Town for his church. He believed that all land belongs to God, and chose not to adhere to the laws of the apartheid government, which sought to remove him from the plot. In the original play, the entry point into Tselilo’s story is through a white woman named Edna. She is the wife of Bruce, the police officer who arrests Tselilo.

Plaatjie repositions the story with Tselilo as the fulcrum. Her shift in focus opens up new questions and conversations about land — ones in which gender and body are at the centre. The content of Tselilo’s case is interesting, but it is in Plaatjie’s use of imagery and casting that a new level of imagination is engaged.

Plaatjie’s play opens with two women centre stage. One wears a dress made of hessian. She is standing, massaging black sand-filled bags hanging over her breasts. She holds her sandbagged breasts tenderly as she expresses the sand into a silver bucket laid in front of her.

The other sits, body slouched, head turned down and face obscured by waist-length braids. Her legs open, in between them a black plastic bag spilling sand into a pink and blue Basotho blanket. After a while she gets up, swaddles the sand, and picks up her sand baby.

For a few minutes all we hear is sand falling, until the sand-breasted woman cries out. Two white men in suits enter and take the silver bucket and the blanket.

On the periphery sits another figure, a black man, tall and lanky. He wears blue overalls covered by a formal blazer. He watches all of this unfold, making observations on a bark notepad.

In this opening sequence, the audience is made acutely aware at a visceral level the ways in which Plaatjie envisions land — an entity that leaks, that reacts, that feels.

The bucket and blanket are not objects. They are imbued with meaning as the land. They are mourned when they are taken away. The play therefore makes the argument that cultural practice, the use of the land for sustenance and the role that land plays in reproduction cannot be seen in isolation.

After the opening sequence, the woman in the hessian, Nomakrestu Xakathugaga, becomes the physical manifestation of land. Although Tselilo is played by a woman (Faniswa Yisa), he is addressed as a man.

This could be read in myriad ways. On the one hand, it could be a comment on the erasure of black women in the narratives of colonial struggle. It also hints at black people being interchangeable and perceived as monolithic by racists, and more pointedly the state.

The only people who address Tselilo directly are the white characters — Tselilo’s defence lawyer Bruce Sifren (Kai Luke Brummer), and the judge (Duane Behrens).

On the other hand, the misgendering of Tselilo is never challenged by the character. Perhaps this could also be read as a comment on the erasure of trans and queer people and the absolute failure of binaries to engage with anything outside of its rigid confines. The audience is left to decide who Tselilo is; we are not told. Instead, their identity collapses in on itself and we must confront our own assumptions about the body.

The triumph of Plaatjie’s adaptation is in the assertion that the experience of the land must be one that is lived, one that has memory, one that is felt. Sometimes, for us to tell a different story, we need to eschew power and complicate it. Reimagining is merely a shifting focus, and through it we can find new ways to understand South Africa’s land as well as our relationships with it. 

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