#WeAreDyingHere, ongoing event, next up, Joburg Theatre – February 29, 2020: review and insights from interview with Siphokazi Jonas

Performer/writers: Siphokazi Jonas, Hope Netshivhambe and Babalwa Makwetu (vocalist)

#WeAreDyingHere is theatre of rage; anguished; urgent howl on stage, presented by three womxn in response to the epidemic of violence in South Africa. In #WeAreDyingHere, they are actively –speaking out against the “violent culture of harassment, abuse, rape and femicide in South Africa.”

I saw #WeAreDyingHere November 30, 2019 at Artscape, Cape Town in its Innovation Lounge (upstairs, in the vicinity of the theatre bar). There was a performance December 1 at 3pm. December 1 happens to be World AIDS Day- raising awareness of AIDS – caused by the spread of HIV infection and a day to remember those who have died from the disease.

Yes, you are reading this and the very short debut run of #WeAreDyingHere is over at Artscape but there are plans to stage it in 2020.

A few weeks ago [this was written in November 2019], there was a frenzy of reporting on BBC TV, that around 50 women are killed in Europe each week by their partners or ex partners. The figure is said to be higher in France. In South Africa we are reeling from a wave of horrific rapes and murders of women.

And the number in South Africa? This is what pops up on the internet: “It has been widely shared online that a woman is murdered every four hours in South Africa” or “It has been widely reported that a woman is murdered every four hours in South Africa” or “it has been estimated that a woman is murdered every four hours in South Africa”. There are complex charts with how many women are murdered per hundred thousand in SA.  I could not locate a credited FIRST HAND SOURCE regarding the stat of “woman being murdered every four hours in SA”. The words “widely reported” kept appearing. Whatever the number – we are facing and epidemic of violence and murder against women – young women and female children – and babies. How can get one’s mind around rape of babies? Incomprehensible.  Yes, #WeAreDyingHere.

There are many stories of horror that we don’t hear about and which just get marked up as stats. In Cape Town, we waited, wrapped up in communal sense of dread for news of Uyinene Mrwetyana- the 19-year-old University of Cape Town student who went missing on August 24, 2019. On September 2, 201, it was revealed that she had been raped and murdered. Another shocking rape and murder.

#WeAreDyingHere is a platform to articulate the despair, fear, outrage that women are experiencing. Against the backdrop of the wave of rapes and killings, the artists want to speak out in a public space. Jonas and Netshivhambe and wrote the poems. Makwetu – a vocalist – conceptualised and wrote the music.

Jonas:This production has been borne out of frustration. During the trauma, hysteria and outpouring of grief this past September – I remember feeling so fearful, overwhelmed and when it came to writing, at a real loss. I remember sharing a poem against GBV [gender-based violence] on Twitter which I had written in 2018 and feeling heartbroken at how things have worsened. The poem, “Thanks for the hashtag, but…” ends with the line: “The trend is, #wearedyinghere”. I posted about how I felt art was useless in the face of such horror. How can a poem stop a rapist from raping? It can’t. A fellow artist texted me in my DM and reminded me that at the very least, our work allows us to articulate the collective grief. After that conversation I was merely trying to make my way back to believing that what we do is worth something. This is the hopelessness which we are grappling with. The last line of that poem has now defined the scope of the conversation we hope to be part of. We decided to focus on personal experiences or of those close to us. However, some of the poems to speak to a global experience of what it means to be a woman moving through the world. The personal aspect has meant that we could not tackle all forms of GBV and we acknowledge that the narrative is limited. However, this is such an inward journey that we had to make peace with the inability to speak about how complex and endemic this issue is.”

The two performance season at Artscape marked the the debut of the piece says Jonas. “Yes it is. We have, however, combined existing and new work.”

In the performance, we are faced with grief-stricken pleas for violence, violations, rape to stop – please can we be safe- be able to walk down a street – during the day – never mind at night – and arrive safely at our destination. Instead we are faced with “a mosaic of apologies…”; “the traditions of silence”. It is a brutal indictment of the landscape that we inhabit – physical and emotional: “This land is nothing but a graveyard”; “We sit on a mountain top, drafting obituaries”; “A woman’s arrival is sigh of relief.” Throughout is the chilling leitmotif: “These poems might be the only evidence that we were here”; “These poems will be the story.”

By presenting #WeAreDyingHere in a safe creative space in a theatre environment, the artists are urging us to listen carefully and consider their words. These are poems which do not conjure up images of beauty, love, hope. It’s brutal and ugly. The words and music pull one in and hit one in the gut. In the performance that I saw, the artists were draped in sheets of black garbage bags – evoking images of women as garbage – discarded and dumped; abandoned, tossed away after being used, abused; left for dead in garbage bins.

However, for future performances, I would like to see the staging developed in terms of design/use of space – perhaps the creation of an installation for us to walk into, rather than being confronted with a clump of chairs and a stage. Perhaps the walls could be shrouded with black sheets or garbage bags to create a space which blocks out the world of violence and proclaims: “This is our place for now. We are demarcating our space in this violent landscape.” Unfortunately at the Artscape Innovation Bar, there are glass doors. There was noise from the outside – revellers in festive mode. People were looking in – which was intrusive. They were watching, voyeur-like through the glass – curious, I suppose. Sitting there, I felt unsettled – being watched while I was watching. I would like to see footage screened (snippets from TV, news, imaging the words and music on stage. It is not cheap for artists working on an independent basis to bring in fund production costs such as design. The “subject” is not “pretty/nice”, so I can imagine that getting funding for this production would not be an easy task. It is a critical issue that they are putting in focus. I hope that someone or a corporate entity will come forward and assist with production funding. Bravo to Jonas for making it happen. It would be a shame for this production to languish with a few performances here and there. Jonas and Netshivhambe poetry is heart-breaking and beautifully articulated and so is the music and voice of Makwetu.

The 45 minute performance includes a debriefing session at the end, with the artists facilitating a conversation with the audience. There is an invitation to share stories, fears, and reactions.

Production image: supplied

Theatre/travel advisory

? ✔️Next up: #WeAreDyingHereat Joburg Theatre, February 29, 2020

✔️ Tickets: R150 – R350

✔️ Book at Webtickets.

✔️ Direct booking link: https://www.joburgtheatre.com/we-are-dying-here/

#WeAreDyingHere is available for touring. Jonas intends taking #WeAreDyingHere on tour this year [2020]. In addition to mainstream and non-traditional performance spaces, she wants to ignite  indabas/conversations in schools, churches, corporate environments.

ℹ️ For more touring information, contact, Martin Myers by e-mail: martin@martinmeyers.com

Siphokazi Jonas #wearedyinghere
Siphokazi Jonas Pic: TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen