Flipping the Script is again playing at The Laager, Market Theatre Complex in Johannesburg, and I had the opportunity to see it again. The work, conceived and directed by Bobby Rodwell, is leaner and better than it was last time I saw it. Be warned, this review contains serious plot spoilers.
The programme now only credits four writers, Catherine Mlangeni, Zubeda Dangor, Nonzi Bogatsu and Dorothy Brislin, leaving Bobby Rodwell out of the writing credits. This work is apparently based on the writers’ own life experiences and perspectives.
The four women tell their stories, each revealing little touches unique to their cultures, in a very natural way, interacting only marginally with each other, but then in ways which highlight the prejudices against the stereotypes of each culture portrayed.
I found the afterlife where each person retains sex, class, race, cultural, age and religious perspectives interesting in view of my own belief that these will fall away. I acknowledge this as one way of looking at life in contemporary South Africa. As a form of intercultural dialogue the construction of the play works very well.
The weakness in the script is in the writing of the character, MamGladys, by Catherine Mlangeni. There were places where it didn’t ring entirely true, even though this has been tightened somewhat since I first saw the play. This character is the only one where a change of actress has been made, and this time the role is played by Nandi Nyembe. However, there is much that does resonate with the audience. The account of police visiting her home searching for her politically active son, the problems of poverty in the rural area, the comfort of religion, labola, customs relating to marriage and mourning, the frustration of waiting in queues at Home Affairs for pensions, etc.
Nomonde Mbusi plays Fikile, a young urban black woman (one who eats tripe and sheep heads) who attended a model C school. Amanda, the white character says “So you’re a coconut . I’ve never men one before.” The response from Fikile is “No, I’m a slut.”
The character is promiscuous: she enjoys sex and the power it supposedly gives her over men. She speaks up about everything, and she’s the one who give voice to the prejudices and beliefs about stereotypes: “are Muslim women prisoners?”; “white people don’t wash”; “Jews are sharks”; “blacks are loud”; and “oriental gentlemen are under-endowed.” And it is precisely this way of talking that gets her killed. She calls a man she meets a “limp-dicked little bastard”. He takes exception to the comment and shoots her. Nonzi Bogatsu wrote the confrontational dialogue for this character.
The gentlest, most understated and most plausible of the characters, was the character Zainab, written by Zubeda Dangor and acted by Leeanda Reddy. Married at sixteen to a man who started physically abusing her on the honeymoon, this character conveyed much of the idealistic romance with which sheltered young women view married life. She interpreted the rich mysteries of Indian cuisine and Muslim culture to the audience in such a way which made it plain that she was a little puzzled by their inability to know, understand and access her way of life.
Her duty to her parents was a strong motivating factor in her toleration of the abuse of her husband. She, with the help of her brother and a woman friend, finally divorced her husband who still continued to stalk her, accusing her of lesbianism and finally beating her to death.
The final character is Amanda, written by Dorothy Brislin and portrayed by Charlotte Butler. This character never marries as she was sexually abused over a long period by her uncle Ben as a child. Despite having told her mother, the situation continued. She obeys the white stereotype with her obsession about time and her impatience. She is incredibly uncomfortable with Fikile’s sexual revelations and somewhat amazed by the interaction of black and white people generally. She also gets the funniest line in the play “Cape Town is like watching a French movie. Everything is really, really slow, but you still can’t figure out what’s going on, even with the sub-titles.” She’s exceptionally angry, hysterical and unbalanced. It doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that she committed suicide.
The sets are simple, suspended chairs which hint at the many other stories of other women up in the air, and a chair for each of the characters. It can be reproduced easily in any hall or under any tree, although the lighting of a traditional theatre did add much to the general ambience. The costumes are contemporary and very effective. MamGladys gets a twin set and pearls as befits her age. Fikile gets black jeans, high heeled boots and a zany hairstyle. Zainab gets modest clothing with a distinctive Muslim headscarf. Amanda has the messy layers of clothing which portray her need to protect herself.
Much work has gone into the telling of these stories. Bearing in mind the general abuse of women across class, race, culture, age and religion, the characters are plausible and the stories they tell are entirely valid. The differences between the four South African women, as well as the shared experiences as women, are what make this work poignant and relevant as a mainstream piece of theatre, not merely as a work for festivals around women’s issues. Bluntly, yes, this is a feminist piece, but whatever you may think of this tag, Flipping the Script remains worth seeing.
Flipping the Script is on at the Laager Theatre at the Market in Johannesburg until May 6. Book at Computicket.