A circular stream of red organza floods the centre of the Alec Mullins stage at the 2018 National Arts Festival in the newly renamed Eastern Cape town of Makhanda. Mamela Nyamza, wearing only an assortment of white ballerina skirts under a tattered apron, sits in a deep squat with her back to the audience as they take their seats to watch a performance of Hatched.
Nyamza occupies herself with the familiar domestic task of applying pegs to clothes on laundry day. Peg by peg, she adds a new layer to the skirts she wears. Once the crowd settles, her son, who has been filling sheets of paper with sinister-looking charcoal drawings, starts rapping over the background music.
Nyamza rises on her pointe shoes, shuffling on and off stage to collect items of clothing in a bucket that she secures on her head. Once she has all the clothes, we watch her point her toes and stretch her limbs to reach the washing line where she hangs her red laundry out to dry.
Nyamza’s laundry routine, ballet and movements work together to create an autobiographical piece that speaks to the yokes she carries as a gay black woman, an African performer in traditionally European spaces and a mother.
Throughout the performance she moves between a state of vibrancy — characterised by swift and light movements — to one of uncertainty and doubt, where her limbs and lungs lose momentum. She dances, assigns chores to her son and scrubs the stage floor. Then she dances again, rearranges the clothes on the line, changes clothes, falls over, crumples and gets back up again.
This routine highlights the motions of anxiety, domesticity and resistance that Nyamza partakes in. She transforms the mundane acts of her everyday life such as chores, interacting with her son, performing, self-doubt and receiving love into a 55-minute moving biography.
“Hatched is a biography of how uMama, as a lesbian woman with a son, [responds to] the labels people give her and all this while being a performer,” says her son, Amkhele Mandla, afterwards.
“For me, it’s home. I was born on the stage, so Hatched is a bond between me and my mom. It’s the best feeling. My mom even knows that I’m reserved, so it’s the best way to express myself because I have Mama making the stage a safe place. I study my mom and show her how I’m feeling. Without Hatched, I wouldn’t be the person I am right now.”
Amkhele is a lean, dark-skinned 18-year-old who wears his sharp features in a soft face the way his mother does. Because he doesn’t mind the cold, he sits on a balcony overlooking a silhouette of Makhanda’s cathedral during an unexpected bout of load-shedding while he explains his artistry.
“I’m not in school right now; I’m gonna go back to all that school stuff next year. I still think of myself as a natural musician. My music caters for the thinker through hip-hop, jazz. And I draw. I love drawing abstract figures. Art is my favourite form of expression. It’s my loudest voice. I’m not a very out-there person; I’m still a little insecure in social settings,” he says.
To withstand the 7°C temperature outside, Mandla wears stonewashed jeans, two oversized jackets and high-top sneakers. He presents his hair in the fashion of high-top dreadlocks and a tapered cut that enhances his likeness to his mother, about whom he speaks with deep sighs, short gasps, twinkling eyes and animated hands.
“My mom? My mom scares me. In a good way. She’s the most challenging woman because she can turn everything into art. When I look at my mom, I think of the art form Dada. It’s stronger than abstract [art]. If you ask her what it means, she won’t give you an answer. She’ll ask you what you think.”
After a performance of Hatched, Nyamza sits cross-legged in an oversized purple jersey, leggings and what looks like special mittens for her feet while nursing a hot-water bottle. She urges us to come closer and answers all our questions in a tone that speaks of simplicity, broadening access to the arts and dismantling ideas of her work being too complicated for those without an artistic eye.
She is asked what advice she would give to first-time theatregoers who are not familiar with her work. “With my work I think it’s better when people come, not once, but twice to understand it,” she responds. “Because the first time people think: ‘What is she doing?’ I get a lot of that and I’m used to it. The advice that I have is: follow my work! If you have seen it before, I would like to hear what you think.”
She adds: “I’ve allowed my body to express itself the way it wants to be, not the way I was taught. I come from structures. I come from frames and I’ve actually deleted all those structures. I am expressing. I’m not interested in structures anymore. My history of dancing and ballet spoke of people I did not know and could not relate to. That made me feel odd in class and I did something about that on stage. It was 1994, [when] it was hard to get into the institutions to study dance. I needed to get that paper to defy the stigma that I could not graduate. After that, it was away with the structures,” says Nyamza to an audience that responds with mmh-mmhs.
Nyamza began performing Hatched with her son in 2008, three years before the dancer-choreographer was named the Standard Bank Young Artist for dance. In the beginning, the eight-year-old Mandla would sit on stage in his mother’s costume, drawing with crayons. Soon the crayons were exchanged for paintbrushes, then Mandla grew too tall and pubescent for the dress and so he “hatched” from the safety of her skirt.
Today, he brings his live charcoal sketching and his rhymes to the work, rapping: Can’t handle the pressure/ I ain’t even on my lesson/ I’ve done some reflecting, on my past life/ My family labels me as that guy whose dad lies and he acts like shit is all good when it ain’t though/ Mama happy cause she got a woman and I saw it happen; I can deal with it but I still feel it/ It’s still different; it’s life though and I ain’t really trippin’.
These lines come from a song titled Thozama, named after Nyamza’s late mother, in which Mandla address the pressures around him. He says: “My mom travels a lot. The way schoolkids made my mom being lesbian shit for me, that song was my autobiography.”
Today, Mandla stands as physical proof of how much Hatched has grown since its debut 10 years ago. “We used to joke about how one day we would be doing Hatched and I would be a man. Now it’s happening,” says Mandla, grinning at the sky at the thought of his mother seeing him as a man.