When We Awake: review/interview

Writer and director: Nwabisa Plaatjie

Cast: Nolufefe Ntshutshe and Sisipho Mbopa

Venue: Baxter Masambe Theatre

Dates: February 18-29, 2020

Times: 7 pm nightly and Saturday matinees at 2pm.

Tickets: R80-R120

Bookings: Webtickets

Note: Webtickets is the authorised and official ticket seller. Webtickets direct link https://www.webtickets.co.za/

If men behave like dogs; let us treat them like dogs.

Every man is pleading for forgiveness.

If you want to save someone; would you report someone?

This is utterly chilling- and shameful – territory that Nwabisa Plaatjie is setting out in her new play, When We Awake. Her writing is lyrical and brutal. Every line and one feels the punch as the protagonists are mired in a gruel of gender-based violence and patriarchy. In conjunction with images of terror and despair, there is a quirky playfulness which provides release and relief for the viewer.

When I watched this play on the weekend, there were howls of laughter. Howl is the operative word. When We Awake resonates with rage and outrage. Plaatjie is 26 and she is articulating the despair of young women in this country who have had enough of gender-based violence and patriarchy. As it is voiced in the play: “If men behave like dogs; let us treat them like dogs.”

Vivid imagery unfurls in front of us, marshalled through accomplished artists, Nolufefe Ntshutshe and Sisipho Mbopa as they enact a play within a play. There is a lovely sense of the self-referential. In the prologue, they muse that they hope that the play will tour to festivals. They hunt around for props, around the stage. It is physically charged, energetic and vivid theatre, imbued with magical realism.

Drowned in a pot of porridge

The medium of expression is framed within a tradition of African oral story telling. The idea for the play germinated, while she was studying for her recently completed MA at UCT. The play was workshopped with theatre makers, Andrew Buckland and Mncedisi Shabangu and further developed with Oarabile Ditsele and Sizwesandile Mnisi.

For her MA, she was looking at “African oral storytelling in contemporary theatre” and she has used that medium as a powerful tool in this play. Two sisters are flummoxed by the loss of their older sister, Notea and versions of what happened to her. According to their mother, Notea drowned in a pot of porridge. They don’t know how that aligns with their grandmother’s version. 

Loss- not death

Plaatjie uses the word “loss” deliberately – and not death. She says: “I think loss seems more fitting because in the world of the play they do not find the body of the missing sister, all they know is that she drowned in a pot of porridge because she got too greedy. The narrative is inspired by a childhood game depicting a similar incident and it felt like the perfect container for When We Awake.”

The isiXhosa game of uNotea as metaphor

Regarding he game she is referencing, Plaatjie explains: “We have a variety of Xhosa childhood games that subliminally speak to GBV, but it is only now that I make sense of some of the things we were playing. Today I can look at this game and understand that stories where created to explain the disappearance of young girls, or sexual abuse and we re-enacted those stories on a. daily basis through games. The game of uNotea becomes a metaphor for me for all those women who go missing and their cases never get solved, because the only thing we know about the character in the game is that she drowned in a pot of porridge because she got too greedy.”

Which or whose narrative do we believe? In When We Awake, the missive is ringing out loudly: Chart your own narrative; your own fairy tale, where women are safe, fulfilled and loved. Plaatjie says: “Anyone who has experience intsomi/ Xhosa oral storytelling will be able to map influences of it on the piece. There’s something about the piece that makes it seem like a fairy tale for teenagers and adults. It’s also set in fantastical lands where everything seems possible and women can turn men to dogs.”

When we Awake is Plaatjie’s 9th play. Yes, she is only 26. This is a seriously prolific artist. In addition to her work as a playwright, she is the co-ordinator of the Masambe Theatre at The Baxter Theatre. On that note, Plaatjie says: “We are a home for upcoming artists and are trying to firmly establish Masambe as a space for performance, collaboration and networking. Mentorship is a big buzz word this year and people can look forward to events such as ‘The letter to my young self’ which we have run in the past.”

Image credit: Nwabisa Plaatjie. Pic supplied.

Theatre/ ✈ travel advisory:

The Masambe Theatre

The Masambe Theatre: In The Baxter Theatre Centre complex, Main Road, Rondebosch, Cape Town 7700

To apply to The Masambe: E-mail Nwabisa.plaatjie@uct.ac.za,

Baxter website: http://www.baxter.co.za/