/ 21 August 2019

Koleka Putuma’s Christian/ queer collision

A scene from 'No Easter Sunday For Queers'
A scene from 'No Easter Sunday For Queers', which runs at the Market Theatre until August 25 (Paul Botes/ M&G)



In the astounding anthology that is Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, the poem No Easter Sunday For Queers stands out as the centrepiece. It’s a tone-setting jump-off point for conversations that cannot be escaped.

In it, the poet outlines, initially in bullet points, the impossibility of a queer life and queer love in the context of a demagogic religious environment, but also makes a claim for how society as a whole — through the figure of the preacher — bears the stain of complicity in its persecution of same-sex love:

  • And Easter will still come around every year for this Jesus you we I speak of
  • And why is it that there is no Easter Sunday for queer bodies
  • When lesbians are crucified like Christ?

With a play adapted from the poem being staged at the Market Theatre, one could say that the elephant in the room is, once again, making its presence felt.

“I’ve been wanting to write that poem for a while,” says Putuma, “and it’s the one poem in my theatre collection that is the closest marriage between my work as a theatre practitioner and as a poet, and the way that I kind of look at putting words on stage.

“But when I wrote the poem I didn’t write it with the intention of turning it into a play. It was written more with this intention of writing this letter to my father, who is a preacher somebody. But then, two or three years ago, there was a play-writing residency and I proposed to adapt the poem into a play.”

Putuma says she wanted the play to also translate “into a queer experience outside of myself”, a sort of midpoint between autobiography and fiction.

Winning the 2017 Casa playwriting award, which is a collaboration between the Playwrights Guild of Canada Women’s Caucus and the African Women Playwrights Network, not only afforded Putuma the space to create a work of theatre, but she also received mentorship from theatre-maker and facilitator Mwenya Kabwe and Canadian playwright Diane Flacks.

The play is located in a church, a setting that resonated with Putuma because this was part of her formative experience.

“In the beginning the play was very issue based, and in its development I had to figure out how to make the play less about the issues, but about the people,” she says. “One of the difficult things was doing research on hate crimes for about six or seven months and sitting with those stories day in, day out, so I could kind of figure out what story I wanted to tell.”

In this sense Kabwe and Flacks played crucial initial roles, with Kabwe’s role morphing once again when she was invited to join the production as a director.

The play revolves around two lovers, Napo (MoMo) and Mimi (Tshego Khutsoane). In the redacted style found in the poem, the synopsis describes the story as follows: “NO EASTER SUNDAY FOR QUEERS follows the hate crime murder love story of Napo and Mimi. The lovers, through the spirit, subconscious, Easter Sunday sermon, return on the anniversary of their wedding death crucifixion to make the church pastor perpetrator Father reconcile reckon with the present and the past and a sacrifice crucifixion he must account for. The altar is a cross and the subconscious a courtroom where the dead seek justice for a an act sin committed by their perpetrators. The antagonist protagonists cannot any more tell the past from the present and scripture from the truth. Every year, through the visitations on Easter Sunday, the pastor and his church is made to remember.”

The “spirit, subconscious” speaks to the poetic genesis of the work, an aspect cradled and polished through the metamorphosis of the script.

“The overtness of the violence in the play started to shift with feedback,” says Putuma. “One of the conversations was that because queer and lesbian women have to deal with the violence towards those bodies every day and we know that they are killed anyway. [So] how much of that do we need to see in the theatre?”

She adds: “One of the versions of the play had a scene where you do see the two women murdered in the church; I wouldn’t say in an explicit way, but it is written and it is there. So in redeveloping the script, particularly with Mwenya, one of the things that started to shift was how to portray that violence in a way that didn’t re-traumatise the audience. It’s still not resolved, but it’s something that I know we are thinking about.”

Kabwe says: “It’s written by a poet, so from early on I realised that we were not dealing with a traditional play, which presented it’s own challenges. So the fact that the text is poetic meant, in my mind, that the whole thing would have to be dealt with poetically.

“So from very early on I had the image of a large chorus and some movement language. I was thinking about this as staging a poetic text as opposed to staging a play, so I thought about working with people who could bring those poetic aspects to life in a way that I can’t deliver on.

“One of those people was Nhlanhla Mahlangu, because I know the sound that he can make people make, a big group of people especially. And for the production design I knew that I wanted to work with Nicky [production and sound designer Nickola Pilkington].”

Kabwe says that because the material deals with life, death, memory and the afterlife, digital images were well suited to rendering these themes anew.

Although an obvious heaviness pervades at face value, perhaps in honour of the subject matter, it is the light touches and how those cohere that power the story forward in the imagination.

Thando Lobese’s set and costume design is a case in point. The frocks she dresses her protagonists in shroud them in a virginal innocence (which allows them to traverse chronology) but also in the carnal iniquity quite worthy of “the purifying fire” the scriptures harp on about.

Her set of burnt Bibles and embers of wood speaks not only of fiery, self-righteous retribution, but dares us to imagine that same retribution turned towards the self-appointed arbiters of moral rectitude.

The chorus, at least in their appearance, are at once church minstrels for hire, a riotous queer massive led in song by Mimi and, at other points, a cherubic choir led by Pastor Nkosi’s daughter, Napo.

Although it may have been easy for Pilkington to turn up the bells and whistles, her effects are deliberately lacking in frills, and are unfurled sparingly to enhance motif and emotional emphasis.

If No Easter Sunday For Queers does look like it is lacking in resolution, that may, in part, be due to the subject matter itself. How does one resolve acts so bereft of rationale? How does one systematically tackle a doctrine so pervasive, so authoritative, except through a rolling, poetic assault that dares to seek escape routes?

Through No Easter Sunday For Queers, if nothing else, Putuma and her crew suggest for the viewer the clarity of the option to reject that which rejects you, or at the very least consider other options in the spectrums of personal redemption or collective salvation. For her generation at least, little else makes sense.

No Easter Sunday for Queers runs until August 25 at the Market Theatre