Review: Curl Up & Dye – iconic play revisited in brilliant production- pushing metaphors around our roots exceptional theatre

Curl Up & Dye

Writers: Sue Pam-Grant and DJ Grant
Cast: Sue Pam-Grant, Sive Gubangxa, Lauren Snyders, Lisa Gombard and Nomakhosi Meveni
When: December 7-23, 2022
Where: Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay, Cape Town
Tickets: R220

Curl Up & Dye is on in the Olympia Bakery (behind the Olympia Café in its bakery), until Friday – December 23, 2022. It is a must see, with a knock-out cast of five: Sue Pam-Grant, Lauren Snyders, Sive Gubangxa, Lisa Gombard and Nomakhosi Meveni.   Remarkable performances all round. Sue Pam-Grant as Mrs Dubois deserves awards (yes, awards – plural) for her delicious portrayal as the awful but fabulous Mrs Dubois (the caretaker of a block of flats) and most frequent habitué of the hair salon in which the narrative takes place. Lauren Snyders is chillingly scary as the drug addict who lurches around the salon- damaged, broken by substance abuse and domestic violence. They are all a wow – watch the expressions and gestures – Rolene [Lisa Gombard] – fabulous. Quirky props, art deco and awful vintage outfits (very Hillbrow Highpoint) but sourced in Cape Town. Retro kitsch is mashed up with millennial baby pink vegan rubber Birkenstocks and stacks of 2022 YOU Magazines.

This is an immersive watchable play to wrap up the 2022 year of theatre. It is production which is funny, entertaining and poignant and which prods compound nodes for reflection – how we pass off as something other than we are, how we mask our illusions and delusions and how we are rooted in our country – in its complexity and madness and ruptures. It is a play which flexes its muscles and taps into our love as South Africans for our country –our visceral connections to each other. It is uplifting and sobering. This production, took my breath away- in its inventiveness- adroitly re-positioned from the original production.

Curl up & Dye – by Sue Pam-Grant & DJ Grant was first staged in 1989, to huge acclaim in South Africa and Europe. It won a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival in 1990. It was written up in the New York Times. The narrative takes place in in a hair salon, in Joubert Park, Johannesburg. The salon is on its last legs and mirrors the realities of SA at that time- 1989. The salon was in what was termed a ‘grey area’. The Apartheid Group Areas Act was still in force in 1989, but high density areas such as Joubert Park, Hillbrow, Yeoville were grey areas, where people across the Apartheid race classifications were living. This led to many landlords extorting exorbitant rents. It was also a time for an extraordinary diversity across the so called colour bar – with South Africans living together in congested and crowded blocks of flats. The play is a vivid archive of our Apartheid past. There is a heart breaking scene which references the draconian pencil test, administered by the Apartheid regime to classify people white: If their hair passed the ‘pencil test’, they passed as white. Rolene – the proprietor of the salon – submitted – and passed. One feels sick and saddened watching. The past may be another country and yet its isn’t as the ruptures linger as palimpsests and ghostly emblems which we cannot erase.

In Curl Up & Dye, Sue Pam-Grant and DJ Grant (they are husband and wife) presented a capsule of life – with the gaze on five women – navigating their way through 1989. Sue and DJ have done some re-writes for this revisiting of this iconic play. It goes way beyond ‘revival’ production and ‘re-imagining’. The play is the same but very different – exhilarating so. I have seen many revival productions of 80s and 90s seminal plays and they have felt like period plays – ‘the way we were’ and well, cool, interesting but kind of flat and one dimensional. For Curl Up & Dye 2022, they have diced up the monologues (the monologues were  very long) and re-calibrated the narratives through a contemporary gaze with as Sue says, dialogue which is fast paced and “snappier”. It is still 1989 but it pings off 2022.

There are Joburg references such as to Parktown Prawns (giant crickets), the upmarket Parklane Clinic in Parktown but the play resonates now – in Cape Town. Sue has said that the play is about the ‘human condition; and I think that this is why, 33 years later, it resonates so profoundly in 2022.  It riffs off the ‘human condition’ right now in 2022 – in South Africa and globally. The choice of a hair salon as a space, where women talk, unfettered by filters was brilliant in 1989. In 2022, the salon as metaphor, reverberates loudly. I am talking salons largely frequented by women – salons which are not high-end chain salons. In the play, Curl Up & Dye, we are told by Mrs Dubois (played by Sue), that once, one had to make a hair appointment, a week in advance. Now, one can walk in. In 1989, there were no gel nails and mobile phones, social media so it was a very different landscape. But still, in 2022- hair salons – such as the one depicted in Curl Up & Dye – I am thinking of home hair dressing salons – are spaces where people tend to talk – unrestrained, filters off. They are places where one often encounters people from very different spheres of life.

A major shift in the re-positioning of Curl Up & Dye in 2022 is with Mrs Dubois and you can scroll down and read what Sue says in the full comment. In playing Mrs Dubois – 33 years after her first iteration in 1989- she wanted to draw an allegory between Mrs Dubois and Charmaine (the drug addict- brilliantly played by Lauren Snyders): “What separates them is the privilege of Mrs Dubois’ white skin”. So, Mrs Dubois dyes her hair black and this ignites the spectrum of “the metaphor of privileged roots and what this means in this scenario of a ‘grey area’.” It is a potent narrative activator, in 2022, when race, class, privilege have become heightened, it is astounding device to lift the play from 1989 to 2022 (hopefully 2023 – this production MUST be staged again).

We may not have constitutional racism. Apartheid is no longer on the books. However, divides between rich and poor, privileged and non-privileged have become sadly sharpened, particularly in the post pandemic landscape where so many lives were upended. One cannot get away with racial jabs in 2022, as spurted by Mrs Dubois. I love the segment with the chat about the 1987 news story of the Joburg grandmother as a surrogate for her daughter’s test-tube twins and the racial taunts by Mrs Dubois about their Portuguese lineage. In 2022, the racial slurs remain in our society but are often dressed down: “… catching [the] racism on the edge of a joke.” Here, I am quoting UK lawyer Anthony Julius. He said: “You catch it [racism] on the edge of a remark.” This line was incorporated into the script in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson is based on two athletes who competed in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew. In Curl Up & Dye in 1989, the protagonists came across for me as archetypes and as Sue says herself, they were more caricatured. In 2022, the writing has made them a lot more subtle and the racism and slurs are delivered on the ‘edge of the joke’, which I think is masterful.

Race, class, privilege, crime , domestic violence (all evoked in Curl Up & Dye) is embedded in the mess we are right now – with corruption, load shedding level whatever; despair, anger, confusion, fear, anxiety. Many feel that they just want to curl up and block out the news and social media and watch a sunset or sunrise. Of course, it is only those with the luxury of privilege who have a home and a safe space, who can do that. With all the kak, Curl up & Dye, conjures up tender portraits of Joburg 1989 and it also evokes Cape Town 2022 (such as, Jou Ma Se Poes, which has a particularly Cape argot vibe) – with tenderness and love. We are deeply rooted in our illusions, delusions, our country; its humanity, resilience and the humour which keeps us going.  Do not miss Curl Up & Dye. Exceptional theatre.

Roots of it all: Sue Pam-Grant as Mrs Dubois – with pink cap hairdryer dinghus in Curl Up & Dye, 2022 production, Cape Town, Olympia Bakery. The old type hood hair dryer was used in the 1989 production. This one example of the zany and quirky props used in 2022.
 Insights from Sue Pam-Grant on revisiting Curl Up & Dye in 2022  

When I decided that I would play the role of Mrs Dubois who would have been 33 years older than my first playing of Rolene, I thought that I had to re-imagine that character… I wasn’t comfortable playing her the way that she was written, 33 years ago and I thought that she needed to change quote dramatically, if I was to play her in 2022, so in the re-imagining of Mrs Dubois for myself to play, it shifted the access of the play… Originally she was an Afrikaans Tannie character… now there is a very fine line between her and the drug addict character Charmaine. I wanted to draw the allegory between the two of them – that what separates them is the privilege of her white skin. With this in mind, it needed me to re-write – not her narrative – but the way she interacts in the salon, the way she would speak, the way she would dress and this then kicked the whole dialogue shift. It became apparent to me that the writing needed to be much faster, snappier, more upfront, more in-your-face… in a sense – using a more contemporary pen- not allowing for big flexive monologues which were present in Curl up & Dye 1989 so just making the text in the now, in the moment and quite rough, raw and right to the core.

Of course this effected the rest of the characters and the way they interacted with Mrs Dubois and a beautiful new theme that came through was the fact that she dyes her hair black and looking at the metaphor of privileged roots and what this means in this scenario of a ‘grey area’. So that is really where the shift came from and it shifted everything in the text and I think that it is a much faster, zappier piece of writing. It is less caricatured, in a sense. There is a very interesting division between the two characters – Charmaine and Mrs Du Bois. They are seemingly so far apart but actually so close. So that is where the shift came and I am very happy with what has developed. I think that it has really pushed the metaphor around our roots… that’s what we have and that’s what we return to when we are pressed and challenged.    

✳Featured image by DJ Grant. Supplied.