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The New Feminism

Janet van Eeden

Coming back from the Grahamstown Festival is always a time for reassessment and stocktaking. This year is no different. One of the many things that struck me about this festival is that there weren’t as many one-woman shows as there were last year. In fact, one of my actors in the play we’d taken to the festival and I were drawn to talk about the phenomenon last July.

“It’s neofeminism,” said Cate Hornby as we wandered around the Village Green in Grahamstown selling our play, The Savage Sisters. We had been talking about how many strong young women were coming to see our play. There were also the more expected older women and men in the audiences, but the young women were the definite majority. What surprised me was how vocal they were in their applause and praise of the message of the play. I also envied them their incredible sense of their own abilities and strength and wished I had been more like them twenty years ago. Cate and I agreed that the young women today are no longer crippled by needing to break new ground. They are taking ownership of their power to be whoever they want to be – in spite of the odds that may be stacked against them.

This was borne out for me by the plethora of plays about women by women at the festival. Although these plays didn’t always attract the attention of the mainstream critics, there were at least ten plays which dealt with women’s issues. At one extreme there was comic lightheartedness in the play called Kiss Kiss. Two young and very pretty performers were marketing themselves unashamedly as Barbie dolls. On our first night at the festival they were looking for help on how to pitch their show. I suggested they should say it was a parody of the fashion industry and a satirical comment about models. They were apparently very grateful for this advice as days later I was amazed to see them turn up at our show. Ours was a rather more hard-hitting piece about the difficulties facing women writers in the 18th century and how things have changed (or not) in the present. They came backstage afterwards to say how much they were moved by the show. Duty bound, my cast and I immediately went to see their show. It was a carefully choreographed comic piece about two models obsessed with their weight and looks. And it made a biting comment about the way friendship often goes out of the window with women when a man comes into their lives. Even if he is a dummy, as he was literally in this case. I thought the piece very honest and funny even as it made a very real point about the competition women sometimes engage in when men are around. We were all reduced to tears of laughter. But the issues were serious.

The next play we saw was the intriguingly named A Woman’s Bum is Like the Moon. This piece drew the audiences because of a provocative poster that showed a woman’s naked bottom which was constantly being pinched. The posters disappeared regularly. The play dealt with the many aspects of most women’s lives: being the wife, the mother, the kugel, and the overlooked young spirit who wants to have fun like men and who refuses to grow old. For me the most telling point of this play was at the end where the actress stood in front of the audience in her underwear telling us about herself as a young woman today. As a woman she isn’t able to compete with the perfect model types, she doesn’t want to end up a slave to domesticity; all she wants is the freedom to explore what she really wants to do with her life without any constraints imposed on her because of her sex. It was a brave and honest piece, and though not flawless, it was laudable. My cast just loved it and gave the actress, Samantha Gray, a standing ovation.

The other plays about women dealt with real and contemporary issues. Behind the Veil was a look at the world from the perspective of a woman who wants more than her Muslim husband allows her. 37 Degrees of Fear was a piece of physical theatre which looked at the murder of a Grahamstown woman, Yvonne Wellman, and explored the way women are often unable to feel safe in the very communities in which they live. And then there was the UKZN’s own avant-garde production of BlueBeard directed by Tammy Hammerslag. Though it had men sometimes playing the roles of women who were victims of physical abuse, it explored the whole issue of domestic violence in a most creative and illuminating way. Then there was Cherry Under My Foot, a two-hander by women exploring the materialistic life of a copywriter in the city, who has a vocal subconscious which undermines her superficiality. And even the protected male turf of Herman Charles Bosman was plundered by two women. Bosman performed by women? the purists might cry. They did the job admirably, I thought, and much better than any old ex-Patricks I have known, if you ask me. There wasn’t much of a feminist message in this play, though, other than that women can do anything men can do. Even play Oom Schalk Lourens!

There were more plays about women, but I couldn’t see them all. And even though audiences continued to flock to the many plays in which one man, or two men or even three ran about in their underpants (and sometimes a bit more) and spoke in Afrikaans accents and told silly jokes and danced with chickens, in the quiet corners of the festival women’s voices were being heard.

And that brought me back to my conversation with Cate on the Village Green. What is this neofeminism exactly?

“Women are no longer attacking men in any way,” said Cate, “but they are urging women to take their future into their own hands. This is the same message Mary Wollstonecraft had in our play. She did not hate men. She just thought that women should take more responsibility to do more with their lives.”

So this made me think a little more. What exactly was the message in my play in the light of this neofeminism? Even though the three authors in The Savage Sisters have a heated debate about their work, and there is a real competitive edge throughout, they form an understanding in the end where compassion for one another’s difficulties in making their voices heard is the tie that binds them together. So perhaps that was the message to take out of the festival. Competition is inevitable among women (and men for that matter). But women’s voices will be heard even more strongly when the competitiveness becomes secondary to compassion.

At the 2006 festival in contrast, there were only two one-woman plays that I noticed (I might have missed the others, but they didn’t make a splash). One was Bosman’s Women, which dealt with the women in Herman Charles Bosman’s life. The other was Tin Bucket Drum, in which a remarkable performance was given by Ntando Cele in a piece written by Neil Coppin. It was not strictly a woman’s play as such, as it dealt more specifically with being an outsider than with just being a woman. It seems that this year there were more collaborations between men and women in plays and this is a great step forward. It seems it is not as necessary to go the route of full frontal feminist pieces this time around.

James Aitchison and Amandla Maphalala in A Matter of TimeEven in my play, A Matter of Time, the cast of women were outnumbered by men at 3 to 4. But the strong female lead Sarah, played admirably by Louise Buchler, definitely caused discomfort to some of the more conservative viewers of the play. “Why was she so angry?” I was asked by a number of people. The answer lay in the play. She had been abused as a small child and had decided that “All men are bastards.” Most of the time in the play she is right. The mechanic at the town where she breaks down with her friend is out to rip them off. She knows this. She is a very strong character who will take no prisoners, and she drives the whole action of the play. She is finally brought to the painful realisation, though, that not all men are bastards. She realises at great cost that even women can be bastards too.

Strangely enough, this play didn’t do as well as last year’s Savage Sisters, which covered more familiar feminist turf.

Another woman who showed crowds how to do it was Sonia Esgueira in the comedy Porra. The play was directed by Ruth Levin and examined different aspects of being Portuguese rather than being a woman. Esqueira played Portuguese men as well as women with amazing skill.

So in the final analysis we have progressed from needing to have blatant feminist messages. But in other ways, strong female characters who take a play or the world by the horns and shake things up are not easily acceptable to the majority of audiences. Unfortunately, it was ever thus.

LitNet: 09 August 2006

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