When the truth becomes a source of shame, something has gone terribly wrong with a society that vilifies one for their honesty. Fezekile Kuzwayo, known as Khwezi, was in that vulnerable position. Playwright Napo Masheane explores her story in KHWEZI…Say (my) her name.
Sitting adjacent the window that allows us a scenic view of the M1 highway, I have a chat with the renowned poet at the den of the old and retired, Mugg & Bean in Killarney, Johannesburg. There is synchrony between Masheane’s mannerisms, the countless vehicles driving past in the background and the lunchtime chatter around us within the eatery.
Throughout her work, Masheane has celebrated women, inspired largely by those in her family. Be it her mother, grandmothers, aunts or cousins- who never treat her like a celebrity. “They see me on TV and I’m still gonna go home and wash mogudu; but with the same breath, they tell me that I’m doing well. But ko hae, they are loud. They inspire me because I listen to their gossip and I put it on stage,” she says.
Her current work, Khwezi, doesn’t veer off the conversation around womenfolk she’s maintained in her career. But this play highlights the strain that women go through, literally at the hands of us men in the form of abuse; be it sexual, physical, emotional or economical.
South Africa has a rape culture that’s among the highest in the world. The police recorded a total of 39,828 rapes in 2016/17, down from 41,503 in 2015/16. An average of 109.1 rapes were recorded each day.
“It’s my best work of all time and the best script ever. I want whoever that walks in, to walk out feeling different after watching the play.”
KHWEZI…Say (my) her name is a play written and directed by Masheane that was inspired by the poignant book written by Redi Tlhabi, KHWEZI…The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo.
“At some point I thought, ‘I’ve written about beauty and image, I’ve written about the 1950s era, the passbooks and the Sophiatown era from a woman perspective (that’s what my thesis was on), New Song was the women’s march and other works’. There are things as a writer that draw your attention.”
Masheane says the stories of Karabo Mokoena and Meisie Molefe, who were both burnt to death by their boyfriends and that she had just done Fat Songs For My Girlfriends, a collection of poems about abuse, were things that inspired her to do something around the story of Ntsukela who was allegedly raped by former president Jacob Zuma. “I was like, I need to write a play about this,” she says biting her lower lip, with eyes squinting out the window.
“…I’m one of those people, I do something, and once I’ve served it or it’s served me, I move on.”
Also, Phumla Gqola’s book Rape: A South African Nightmare came out around 2015, followed by Tlhabi’s. “Also, I remember years ago Kanga and the Kangaroo Court ya Mmatshilo [Motsei] came out, and the idea of doing something[around rape] has always been in the back of my mind.”
By the tenth page of reading Tlhabi’s book, Masheane had already been visualizing scenes and hearing lines. “I could hear dialogue, see stage placements…I was highlighting and marking sections in the book,” she says. Done with the book within days, she told her then bosses at the Sate Theatre, that she wants to do the play Khwezi.
She needed to have clarity on what she wants to say through the play because Zuma was still president of the country at the time. “Because once you’re in, you can’t come out of this.”
Acquiring the rights for the book proved to be a bit of drag as she couldn’t get through to Tlhabi. “I sent her an email and she didn’t respond for about three weeks, then sent another and still, nothing. Only to find that I didn’t have the correct email address.” She ended up contacting her on Twitter.
After a while the two met. “She was like ‘there’s no way I’m gonna say no to you. I know your work’ and there was just mutual respect between us. The minute she said ‘yes’, I started structuring and organising the work because I had already started writing. I then took a leave from work and in the midst of that, the guy [Zuma] was recalled.”
The recall never affected the work itself. “Once I had made that decision, I had made it. Whether he was still president or not I was still gonna do it.”
“I think the level of being scared was better, in bringing me comfort that I’m not dealing with the president, but I’m dealing with the ex-president. Even if he attacks me now, he’s not the first citizen of the country anymore. But also, in terms of the ministers from his cabinet, the shuffle also happened. I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with certain people individually that supported him.”
“As a writer, you get to a point where you either say it or you don’t. The minute you decide you’re gonna say it, you’re not in control of the tone and you can’t cover the truth.”
She had support from State Theatre head, Dr. Sibongiseni Mkhize who told her that if the government want to get to her, they’ll first have to fire him, then fire Artistic Director Aubrey Sekhabi before getting to her.
“So when he was recalled it wasn’t an issue anymore. It was about how do I, do justice to this story. It’s a very serious story-there’s no nice way of writing about rape. It’s not one rape, it’s so multi-layered.”
Masheane views Ntsukela as a brave woman that came forward when most women wouldn’t have, because of fear of intimidation. “We all need to say her name because yes ke Khwezi, but that name was loaned, it’s not her name. So to separate the book from the play, I cancelled out the ‘her’ on the flyer, and wrote ‘my’- she embodies so many of us, so we need to say our names because Khwezi is a name we’ve all taken upon.”
She just left her job as the Deputy Artistic Director at the State Theatre, which she held for a year.“It wasn’t tedious, but there was a lot of administration, logistics-it was almost like project managing the arts daily. I’ve learnt a lot and I appreciate the fact that I did it, also, I think it’s very important for any theatre maker or artist to go on the administrative or business side. I mean, before I even became a poet or got on stage to perform, I was an intern for two years ko Market Theatre.”
Her internship meant getting her hands dirty and learning about technical things such as stage management, lighting, building sets, painting stages and even sweeping stages. “So by the time I got to perform, I had so much appreciation for the stage and for everyone working, especially behind the scene. I knew that someone who makes you tea, is as important as someone who does lighting for you on stage,” says Masheane.
“I’m happy I did it,” she says of her short time at the State Theatre which meant leaving her company Gossip Village Productions, which she’s been running for 11 years with her partners. “You learn about contracts-more than I had known. You learn the language…there’s a lot of bureaucracy, because it’s a government institution. Also, you operate with people at a different level, you no longer just a performer or writer, you’re the person who can give somebody work, so people start viewing you differently.”
“But at some point, I got to say ‘well, is this what I wana do forever?’ and I’m one of those people, I do something, and once I’ve served it or it’s served me, I move on.”
She is one of the few women who’ve now done the 360 degree in the theatre space. From the technical side, admin, directorial and even performance. In 2015 she wrote, produce and directed a play called A New Song at the Market Theatre Main’s stage (John Kani Theatre), her first solo work My Bum Is Genetic, So Deal With It! which came out in 2006 is one of her most popular work including Feela Sista and Fat Black Women Sing just to mention a few. One of her monologues, Mama The Storm Is Outside, was chosen to be performed by leading actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor (of 12 Years A Slave) at Royal Court in London.
Masheane has freelanced as a consultant to almost every theatre in South Africa for almost 20 years now. She is smart enough to embrace the system, yet simultaneously adequately eccentric to disrupt it. She says she wants to be an art scientist and is contemplating a PhD in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies. “The reality is that, it doesn’t matter how much you know until you formalize it,” she says.
Part of her contract as Artistic Director at the State Theatre, was that she would stage a show at the theatre within that year, which will now happen next month when Khwezi premiers. “Actually, I’m happy that I left three months before Khwezi comes in because I don’t think I would’ve gone deeper into it as I have.”
The common thread in Masheane’s work is her provocativeness and she believes this play carries that too, but says Khwezi is her most important work yet. “It’s my best work of all time and the best script ever. I want whoever that walks in, to walk out feeling different after watching the play.”
“If they’ve not dealt with the Fezekile story or rape in any particular manner, they should be challenged, provoked or moved enough, for that hour and a half of the play, to deal with it. I want them to realize the extent of what this does to women. So the hissing, whistles on the street, the situations at work where men use their power to sleep with women…-people should feel the need to change, and for me that’s the premise of theatre.”
She has roped in percussionist Azah, who is a protégée of Dr Philip Tabane’s famous band Molombo, to be musical director. While Luyanda Sidiya who’s known for creating SIVA commissioned by the Standard Bank Arts and the National Arts Festival, will choreograph the play. Both joined the Khwezi production after just one meeting with Masheane, because of the magnitude of the story.
· KHWEZI…Say (my) her name opens on the 25th July to 12th August 2018 at South African State Theatre – Arena Theatre. Tickets available at computicket.co.za