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Foot Newton’s Tshepang is a theatrical triumph

Deborah Seddon

Tshepang — the Third Testament

St Andrew’s Drill Hall, at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival (Fringe)

Written and directed by Lara Foot Newton

Starring Mncedisi Shabangu and Kholeka Qwabe

Scenography by Gerhard Marx

A Duckrabbit collaboration

3 to 5 July 2003.

In 2001, South Africa was horrified by the news of the brutal rape of a nine-month-old baby called Tshepang. Her case was the first baby rape story to grab headline attention. At first a group of six men were accused. Later it emerged that the infant had been raped by her mother’s boyfriend. This production is motivated by her story and by the epidemic of child rape in South Africa.

The town and the characters in the production are fictional but are “based on twenty thousand true stories” — the number of child rapes occurring each year in this country.

Lara Foot Newton began writing the play as part of her MA at Wits University, and Bheki Vilakazi assisted with the research. The two began in the town Louisvaleweg, where Tshepang was raped. Their close contact with the community certainly tells. The play comprises material of such a sensitive nature that it could easily shift into either easy sentimentality or gratuitous horror. This production does neither.

Mncedisi Shabangu tells the story of this community consummately and holds the audience in his palm for the entire 80 minutes. We are told the story of what happened to Tshepang through the eyes of the man who has loved her mother Ruth since they were children. As the play opens he is keeping her in his care after her rejection by the community.

His narrative is one of humour and poignancy, his childhood memories mingling with the present. The audience is led slowly closer and closer towards the well-known tragic events.

Through the carefully crafted script these events are defamiliarised, sharpened in their poignancy and reality as we move deeper into the social and psychic landscape of the town. The stage set is one of the play’s great assets and is deployed in creative and original ways. Props used at the play’s outset are freighted with an increasing symbolic weight as the narrative develops.

At the centre is a silent woman on a pile of salt. Kholeka Qwabe, as Ruth, remains on stage throughout, a silent but tangibly disturbing presence. There is a small bed with an orange blanket tied uncomfortably onto her back, like a child. A replica of this bed stands to one side and is later revealed under one of the tiny shanty houses spread out on a piece of hide on the right-hand side of the stage. Such attention to represent the story on both a real and an unconscious level provides the production with its powerful impact. Shabangu’s story of Alfred, the man finally found guilty of the rape, destabilises any easy clichť of “the perpetrator as victim” and is a testament to the inescapable psychological damage of childhood in South African townships.

Shabangu’s character reveals a picture of Alfred as his childhood friend — a boy traumatised and repeatedly beaten by his father’s mistress. As he tells of the worst of such beatings, Shabangu enacts the horror, beating a broom on stage till it breaks, then carrying the broken broom to the bed, as he had carried his friend to his own home to be nursed to something near recovery. This broken broom becomes, in the silent horror of the final scenes, the man responsible for the violence done to Tshepang, but his individual nightmare is only one of many in a town where nothing happens, where there is no work, no hope.

The play reveals, in human detail, a community and — by extension — a country traumatised by a legacy of systemic violence and deprivation. The timing and verbal power of the narrative are flawless. The story is skilfully and patiently built up from a series of insightful characterisations rich in emotional depth and psychological complexity. When the full picture emerges we can agree with Shabangu’s outburst to a journalist during the media feeding frenzy that grips the town: “Before Tshepang, where were you? This town was raped a long time ago.”

Beauty seems a strange word to use in such a context, but it seems the only one appropriate. The play is a search for understanding, beautiful in the unspeakable emotions it slowly and patiently evokes and releases.

I could not fault this production. Not once was the temptation to stray into simplistic attempts at explanation allowed to take hold. Tshepang is a theatrical triumph, meeting at every single level the challenge presented by the gravity of the issue addressed.

14 July 2003

boontoe / to the top

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