Prepare to enter the ‘Hauntings’

Monageng Motshabi’s oeuvre — from his writing and directing to his curation and publishing — is like being clutched by a clairvoyant prescience. Hauntings, an anthology of plays by four South African playwrights, Khutjo Green, Olivia Fischer, Jade Beeby and Refiloe Lepere, is yet another page in this, Motshabi’s opus.

What started as an open call by The Writer’s Lab in 2019 culminated into this anthology, without the intention of it being an all-women publication — “an idea whose time has come” as it were, as it has been with Motshabi’s previous works. In The Empty Space (1968), Peter Brook examines the four modes or points of view on theatre, in his belief that any empty space can become a stage for performative art: deadly, holy, rough and immediate. Hauntings occupies this “empty space” and has laid a fresh welcome mat at the doorway.

This is a dangerous book. Enter for a peek, and you’ll find yourself roaming the pages for hours on end. “You are entering Hauntings,” Nondumiso Msimanga warns in the foreword. 

Zips and Scissors, the first in this anthology, is an arresting and unsettling text that can be read as a picaresque play. But it is the realism thereof that tears the reader’s emotions at the seams. This devastatingly beautiful tale is the third in Khutjo Green’s series of plays threading the narrative of one of the oldest and most lucrative industries in history, sex work. It is a story of a seamstress-cum-brothel keeper, Madam Dee, from a long tapestry of successful business matriarchs who have flagrantly embroidered their legacy in the sex-trade, a frayed fabric of family life they wear with the outmost pride, though their venality is only one layer of clothing down.

Green tends us around the story on a promenade of Cambodia’s city centre where women and cloth are of the same kind of commodity. Though Madam Dee may read as a malevolent narcissist, there is an underlying layer that needles at the question of choice and the traumas that lead to one’s chosen way of life; her self-fulfillment is set against a backdrop of economic depression.

The capacity for meticulous and exhaustive research mated with perceptive and sophisticated intelligence in Green’s pen leads to a highly revealing result. Zips and Scissors is a timely identity study that gives a powerful critique not on sex work as a profession, but the seamstress’ den where the pandemic of sex-trafficking hides and thrives.

A similar narrative, that of sexual violence, has washed over Olivia Fischer’s work since her first year at the University of Cape Town’s drama school when she was raped in her flat. The quasi-autobiographical play, Still, is an engrossing love triangle with the apex dislodged. It decants into tragedy (the rape of Chloe, the protagonist and the murder mystery of Nick), and into romance (the relationship of Aaron and Julia, the antagonist).

It locates the ripples formed by the plop from the boulder of rape plunged into our everyday, how they wave throughout the lives of all those who are in proximity to it, revealing how, almost always, the people who need the most protection and care following that event are blamed, shamed, stamped by the structures and powers that entrap our society.

The irony of a play that speaks out about not being able to speak out intensifies as the story advances. Fischer dexterously employs testimonial theatre with monologues as characters give their accounts of the night of the murder — Chloe speaks only in testimonials — a consistent dam in the flow of Aaron and Julia’s idyllic banter. There is a motif of water in the text that flows so beautifully that the play feels like a pool of sorts, one that “holds you in a way the Earth never could. And isn’t that a beautiful thing?”

‘Hauntings’ is not only for the thespian, but is a feast for the theatre-goer and lover of literature. (Cover design by Slovo Mamphaga)

Written with a heart-on-sleeve directness, Fischer’s juxtaposition – both visceral and cerebral – of soaring romance and plummeting pathos becomes both mast and anchor to the reader; there is not a false note nor missed stroke anywhere. The text is superbly nuanced, whether in fragility or fury. It might, all the same, be fair to add that what Still awakens, above all, is outrage.

Coupled with the “rough” is the “immediate” according to Brook, thus when we meet the outrage in Still, we are bolstered with ebullience in Jade Beeby’s Firsts

Beeby reads like a formidable stickler of form; what is staggering is her devotion to technique. Her text includes entertainingly pedestrian shorthand about the mechanics of second, third, and infinite chances. What would you say differently if you got another chance to say it, and would the outcome be favourable? What if you had infinite chances to try to say it right until the outcome favours you? These are the kinds of questions that spring out of Beeby’s play.

 John is vibrant and impassioned, a complex romantic rather than a cerebral gymnast. Jane is a reluctant contrast. She is angular and, at times, harsh against the softness of John. Her consistency is a witty foreshadowing of the outcomes that lie ahead. Their banter repeats as the drama progresses, circling back on itself, the power play becoming more naked and leeching away many of the grey areas and complexities.

 It can easily be experienced as something of a pastiche of the 2007 Lee Tamahori film, Next, when taken back and different forth through the love story of Jane and John. It is, however, Beeby’s audacious riffs and emotional journey, anchored in theatrical detail, written in short breathy phrases, and made up of questions and answers, that renders the scenes unconventional, and breathes them a life of their own. The text is by turns banal, fresh, sexual, entertaining, humorous – always in the present tense.

  There is another kind of love that surely wishes to have had the grace that Beeby grants John in Firsts; the infinitude of doing it all over again, this is the love we find in Refiloe Lepere’s The Way to a Man’s Heart.

 It is written with eccentric verve and an underlying, apt understanding of its narrative. In a Big Brother-esque fashion, Lepere sits us down in front of a big screen TV that’s displaying a live feed of an everyday South African home. This is a multi-dimensional story that zooms in on the relations where a gorgeous Dikeledi (20) is married to a rich and obese George (40). It is also the story of the influence of a Zodwa, whose entertaining, troubling, shambolic presence gives what may seem like bad advice at every turn. It looks at the dynamics of friendship, finances and their importance and evanescence, and also nudges at the question of choice and the traumas that lead to one’s chosen way of life.

Hauntings is not only for the thespian, but is a feast also for the theatregoer and lover of literature. The penmanship in these stories allows one the “empty space” to stage their own play in their mind; perhaps the play simply plays itself, and all we are to do is roam the empty space as we turn the pages. 

Hauntings is published by diartskonageng in partnership with The Writer’s Lab. It is available to purchase by order. For a copy, email [email protected]

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