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At Her Feet is enlightening, deserves to be seen

Deborah Seddon

At Her Feet

Rhodes Box Theatre, at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival

30 June to 2 July 2003

Writer and director: Nadia Davids

Performer: Quanita Adams.

At Her Feet comes to the Grahamstown Festival from a run at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. It’s one of the highlights of this festival, bringing a fresh perspective among the many productions addressing the issue of South African cultural identities.

This one-woman play explores the identity and status of Muslim women — a topic that has caught the world’s attention in the last few years. In the words of one of the characters, the world has become a little “veil crazy”. The production enters into a dialogue with the images and ideas currently circulating in the world media. It both humorously deflates and poignantly complicates the stereotyped image of the veiled victims of a fundamentalist faith by presenting a range of South African Muslim women of diverse ages and outlooks.

The one-woman show is an apt medium for the issues at hand. The star of the show, the vibrant and talented Quanita Adams, portrays all the different characters and changes her identity on stage, taking her costumes from a clothes rack.

The show opens with Asra, a Jordanian woman stoned to death by members of her community for talking to a man who was not her “brother-father-uncle-cousin-nephew”.

“My name is Asra,” she tells us. “And I have just been killed.” In a beautifully written monologue Asra describes her own death, the feeling of the blows, her blood mixing with the desert sand. “Do you remember my name?” she asks the audience — a question that is the springboard for a dynamic presentation of a range of characters who have been affected by her story.

Sarah is a young woman who grew up watching her aunts and mother wear their headscarves with pride and enjoyment. She understands both the “geometry” of the folding and the beautiful significance of the colours. As a young woman who wears her scarf around her waist or shoulders she embraces her Muslim identity but is also deeply disturbed by reports of Asra’s death and what it will mean in her own life. She knows every woman with a veil becomes “othered” as a victim after such stories. Even she herself colludes in such ideas.

Also affected, by anger, is Aisha, a university student and dub poet with a passion for the Black Consciousness Movement and Marxism. Beneath her brash exterior and Che Guevara T-shirt from Truworths is a vulnerable heart. Her boyfriend Razeem would take her home to meet his mother if only she had straighter — less African — hair. Aisha proudly recognises her black ancestry, as well as her Muslim identity, but her community does not as readily accept the racial mix she represents.

As other women from the community emerge, their complex response both to Aisha and the stoning in Jordan reveals a range of responses to their own identity as Muslim South Africans. Tyra works in a travel agency, a job she has been driven to loathe. After September 11 her boss asks her to remove her headscarf at work: “People might be afraid of buying plane tickets from me,” she says in disbelief.

The older female characters present some of the most poignant moments in the production, describing their lives, their commitment to traditions, their description of festivals and their way of preparing food. The questions put to them by Sarah and Aisha about Asra are accepted with a combination of compassion and complacency. Among the older women there is a sense of a need to maintain solidarity amongst Muslims; such questions are difficult in a “dark time”.

But the story of Asra also stirs memories, remembered pain from their own childhoods, coming of age as women in stricter Muslim communities than those found in South Africa today.

At Her Feet is moving and also often very funny. The juxtaposition of Muslim traditions and festivals with the popular South African culture of BMWs and mall fashions provides for some of the sharpest laughs. At times, however, the comic appeals to the audience sacrifice subtlety. The laughter encouraged by spoofing many of the characters seems to maintain the very “othering” the play is clearly designed to address.

But the strength of this production lies in Nadia Davids’s writing. At times the monologues flower into a richly evocative poetic style — a powerful use of language which is as rare as it is welcome. The dub poem “Roots of Freedom” performed by Aisha’s character is just wonderful.

The pluck and honesty of At Her Feet are admirable. It deserves to be seen.

boontoe / to the top

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