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Shards of Memories, Fragments of Sorrows: Mothertongue Transforming Spaces Occupied by Women in South Africa Through Theatre

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Shards of Memories, Fragments of Sorrows: Mothertongue Transforming Spaces Occupied by Women in South Africa through Theatre

This paper sets out to explore how processes of theatre making employed by The Mothertongue project, provide spaces for women to remap their personal narratives. Mothertongue works from the premise that the development and subsequent performance of stories in theatrical processes affords women the opportunity to re-write and remap their personal narratives and in so doing insert their voices into the landscape of South African Theatre.

In an attempt to redress the gender imbalances and androcentricism prevalent in post-apartheid theatre, this paper speaks to the relationship between theatre, liminality and communitas. I am interested in unpacking how collaborative processes of theatre-making provide spaces for women to remap their personal narratives. Remapping in this instance refers to processes of transforming lived experience through story. I address how, through engaging in ritual activities that are central to the stories performed, actors, audiences and the owners of the source stories are invited to physically participate in remapping and transforming lived experience.

Linked to this is the choice of form(s) and how this affects or impacts on the performed stories as well as on the construction of performed rituals and ultimately on the processes of remapping personal narratives. I focus specifically on Mothertongue’s 2004 production, Uhambo: pieces of a dream. The production was an integration of theatre and visual art in the form of performances, portraits and installations that probed the concept of democracy through the eyes of women living in Cape Town. The production took audience members on a journey that wove together women’s personal responses to life in South Africa post-1994.


Shards of Memories, Fragments of Sorrows: Mothertongue Transforming Spaces Occupied by Women in South Africa through Theatre Brave women in our new country; give us hope that we will make our future work. It will become what we pray for and deserve (Audience Member).

This paper sets out to explore how processes of theatre making employed by Mothertongue provide spaces for women to remap their personal narratives. A map is a collection of data showing the arrangement, distribution, or sequence of something’ (retrieved online on 20 October from Used in the context of personal narratives, the map as metaphor suggests a visual representation of a person’s life; a blueprint of sorts. Remapping suggests a process of reviewing and rearranging the sequence of events or even recreating some of the events. Debra Rae Cohen affirms that ‘Remapping…acknowledges the way such narratives, like maps, mediate between the representation of space and the enacting of power’. She further asserts that ‘Historically, mapping has been a mechanism for controlling knowledge and totalizing knowledge’ (2002: 8). In choosing to use the map as metaphor, the process of remapping suggests, as Cohen (2002) verifies, a process of challenging the characteristically androcentric mode of theatre processes in South Africa to one that is revalorist in its approach; an approach that honours women’s experiences and creates a sense of shared ownership. Remapping suggests a process of challenging the historically male-dominated control and totalisation of knowledge in the field of South African theatre, where men’s ideas have been posited to be applicable and normative for both men and women (Mokwena. 2003).

The suggestion that men’s ideas are posited to be applicable and normative for both men and women in the South African context needs to be viewed in the broader context of South Africa’s emergence from the hegemony of apartheid. Norval (1996:1) contends that ‘The April 1994 elections [in South Africa] formally brought the apartheid era to an end. However, the legacy of apartheid is bound to continue to influence, shape and limit the trajectory of development of a post-apartheid order for the foreseeable future.’ The relationship between the hegemony of apartheid and the oppression of women is evident. According to Caroline Flepp:

In the Republic of South Africa women constitute[d] the category of the population most seriously affected by the apartheid system. They…[were] subject to a triple oppression: as women and on the grounds of "race" and of class. By adopting the principles of the patriarchal society, the apartheid system … accentuated the subjection of women (Retrieved online on 20 October from;col1).

I would argue that the process of democratisation in South Africa has not necessarily rectified the androcentricism of the apartheid hegemony. Seidman concurs in her assertion that:

The tendency for abstract theorists of democratization to overlook gender dynamics is perhaps exacerbated in the South African case, where racial inequality is obviously key. Yet, attention to the processes through which South African activists inserted gender issues into discussions about how to construct new institutions provides an unusual prism through which to explore the gendered character of citizenship (Seidman. 1999: 287).

Mothertongue works from the premise that the development and subsequent performance of stories in theatrical processes affords women the opportunity to re-write and remap their personal narratives and in so doing insert their voices into the landscape of South African theatre.

In an attempt to redress the gender imbalances and androcentricism prevalent in post-apartheid theatre, this paper speaks to the relationship between theatre, liminality and communitas. Liminality as a term was first used by Arnold van Gennep (1960) in his exploration of transition rites such as pregnancy, birth, puberty, marriage and death. Victor Turner (1969) expanded on Van Gennep’s notion of liminality, not only in the context of anthropology, but also in fields such as theatre. Turner’s investigation into the relationship between liminality and communitas is key to my argument. Turner highlights the in-between state of the ‘ritual subject suggesting that this aspect of ritual can lead to a state of communitas’ (Bial. 2004:77). This relationship is akin to Mothertongue’s processes of making and performing theatre. Mothertongue’s conscious engagement with liminality in theatre-making processes, I argue, provides a space for the creation of communitas. The understanding that the core of communitas centres around the notion of creating community, founded on equality, is what informs my claim. It is Mothertongue’s intention to facilitate the creation of a community of women who, through theatre, honour their experiences as women and in so doing create an environment of shared ownership; an environment that allows for the remapping of personal narratives; an environment that challenges the historically male-dominated control and totalisation of knowledge in the field of South African theatre.
The context for this paper is Mothertongue’s 2004 production, Uhambo: pieces of a dream. The production was an integration of theatre and visual art in the form of performances, portraits and installations that probed the concept of democracy through the eyes of women living in Cape Town. The production took audience members on a journey that wove together women’s personal responses to life in South Africa post-1994.

Mothertongue in context You make me proud to be a woman in South Africa (Audience Member).

In June 1999, over a cup of ‘chai’ in a monsoon-filled Mumbai kitchen, performer, writer, theatre-maker and director, Rehane Abrahams asked me whether I would consider directing her in a piece that she was writing. According to Rehane, the piece was a seminal work that would mark a transition into a new way of being for her. On our return to Cape Town from India, the following year, we began working on the production. While filling out funding application forms, we were suddenly confronted with the question of what to call ourselves. The production had to be attached to an organisation. Initially, we wanted to call the production Mothertongue. Rehane reflects on the choice of this name: Increasingly aware of the urgent need for self-healing, I built an alter, called my deceased grandmother, consulted a copy of my ‘voodoo primer’, Jambalaya written by Luisa Teish and began to write. Bibliomancy – opening Luisa Teish’s book at random, yielded the word ‘Mothertongue’. This was to be the vessel for a journey of finding my voice… it was a salute to the women’s theatre network, The Magdalena Project and at the same time expressed the difficulty with my origins and my own tongue. For years, I had been having recurrent dreams about my father and hijaabed women cutting out my tongue. IN an act reminiscent of Muslim Ritual Sacrifice, my father would pour water on my neck, pray and gently cut out my tongue. At the same time, Mothertongue meant stories, the language of my mother and grandmothers….My grandmother, Gawa Abrahams nee Arend, gave me this story [What the Water Gave Me]. (Abrahams, R. 2007:3)

In coming up with a name for our organisation, we decided that the name Mothertongue was better suited to an organisation because of its ‘vessel’ like quality and that What the Water Gave Me would work as a title for the production. The correlation between ‘the tongue of the mother as storyteller’ and the metaphor of water are made explicit by filmmaker, writer, academic and composer, Trinh T. Minh-ha (1989) who asserts that storytelling is associated with water in symbolic and feminine ways. The storyteller, like water, is irrepressible in her defiance of being categorized and contained. She is all-inclusive; possessing immense power and profound wisdom of the universe, she is respected and is honoured in the community. Min-ha asserts that:

Humidity, receptivity, fecundity. Again, her [the storyteller’s`] speech is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. Great Mother is the goddess of all waters, the protectress of women and of childbearing, the unweary sentient hearer, the healer and also the bringer of diseases. She who gives always accepts, she who wishes to preserve never fails to refresh. Regenerate. (Trinh T. Minh-ha. 1989:126).

Min-ha equates the storyteller with Great Mother who guards women and presides over all waters.

For me, the choice to call the play What the Water Gave Me relates strongly with water being one of the four classical elements, as well as with its connections with the feminine. In Indian tradition the element water is also associated with Chandra or the Moon and with Venus, who represents feelings, intuition and imagination. In Chinese Taoist tradition water is yin or feminine in character and is also associated with the moon.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes comments on the feminine aspect of water:

In symbology, the great bodies of water express the place where life itself is thought to have originated. In the Hispanic Southwest, the river symbolizes the ability to live, truly live. It is greeted as the mother, La Madre Grande, La Mujer Grande, whose waters not only run in the ditches and riverbeds but spill out of the very bodies of women themselves as their babies are born. The river is seen as the Gran Dama who walks the land with a full swirling skirt of blue or silver and sometimes gold, who lays with the soil to make it good for growing (Pinkola Estés. 1992:304).

The fluid, almost irrepressible nature of water attracted me. It was as if by choosing to call the play What the Water Gave Me, we were unconsciously determining the irrepressible journey we were about to embark on.

After a rewarding run of What the Water Gave Me in Cape Town, we were faced with a choice: either to continue and grow the organisation, or abandon it and carry on with our individual lives. We chose the former. The need for a women's arts collective – one that focused on women creating and performing theatre inspired by women's personal stories – became apparent in terms of the role it would play in redressing gender imbalances historically prevalent in South African theatre. The necessity to challenge the silencing and marginalisation of women's voices in theatre was evident. I argue that theatre in South Africa is androcentric in that it conceives men’s experiences to be relevant and normative for both men and women (Mokwena. 2003).

Liminality and Communitas in the Crafting of a Revalorist Approach to Theatre-making Liminality is not concerned with the old strategies of the edge, the avant garde and the marginal. Instead it is a notion offering a new way to experiment and create using the in between spaces, the interstices. Liminality is fluid, open, unfixed, inclusive, diverse (Warr 2000:[online]. Retrieved: September,24, 2004, from

Liminality is typically associated with ritual, particularly rites of passage rituals where the initiate enters into an ‘in-between’ space; a space that marks a transition from one state to another. The term was first used by Anthropologist Van Gennep (1960) and later developed by Victor Turner (1969) who viewed liminality as ‘a fructile chaos, a fertile nothingness, a storehouse of possibilities, not by any means a random assemblage but a striving after new forms and structures’ (Turner 1990: 12). It is precisely Turner’s (1990) notion of ‘possibilities’ that attracts me, as a theatre-maker, to consciously engage with liminality in theatre-making processes. I am particularly interested in the relationship between liminality and the creation of communitas as outlined by Turner (Bial: 2004). I argue that theatre, because of its liminal structure, has the potential to facilitate the creation of communitas. For theatre-makers, performers and audience, theatre offers the ideal space to explore notions of liminality. John Mckenzie attests to this: We have come to define the efficacy of performance… terms of liminality – that is, a mode of activity whose spatial, temporal, and symbolic ‘in-betweeness’ allows for social norms to be suspended, challenged, played with, and perhaps even transformed (Mckenzie 2004: 27).

The androcentricism of theatre in South Africa, I argue, necessitates the creation of spaces by women where our voices are honoured and celebrated through communitas.

Considering that women make up the majority of students in tertiary drama institutions in South Africa (this assertion is based on my experience of teaching at the University of Cape Town and at The University of the Witwatersrand), the fact that out of a sample of six South African University drama departments, four are headed by men and two by women, is indicative of the androcentricism I speak of. If the majority of students graduating from drama programmes are women, where are they when it comes to occupying positions of power in the institutions that produce them? Another assertion based on my experience as a theatre-maker and director in Cape Town and Johannesburg, is that there are far more male theatre directors than female directors. I just have to cast my mind over the countless staff meetings at the University of the Witwatersrand where we have discussed potential outside directors who could direct student productions. Trying to come up with a woman director is hard, but harder still is trying to name a black woman director. This leads me to ask: ‘who is telling women’s stories?’ Are they being shaped and indirectly told by male directors? If this is the case, my assertion that theatre in South Africa is androcentric in its approach and implementation is plausible. Yvonne Banning reiterates this position: The educational system is male top heavy, unbelievably so, and of course racially it’s almost exclusively white, especially the higher you go. Women are employed predominantly in the lowest paid positions (Banning Cited in Goodman, L. 1999:9).

This assumption should not be taken as an attack on men, but rather as a call to women in South African theatre, to claim positions of authority. As I write this, I question the use of the word ‘authority’. On my ear it feels androcentric in its sounding. We need to come up with a new word. I am not suggesting that as women, we take up this challenge by adopting a gynocentric approach.

Instead I am proposing, through the work of Mothertongue, a revalorist way of working. A way that honours women’s experiences; a way that enables us to find new words for ‘authority’. According to Julia Wood (1999), revalorists support the significance of ‘traditionally feminine skills, activities and perspectives that have been marginalised in society’ (Wood.1999:78). Revalorism emerged out of second wave feminism and encompasses an extensive regard for the arts as ‘symbolic expressions that women can make use of to further their course’ (Wood cited in Mokwena. 2003:93). Murdock suggests that: Women, having internalized our subordination, may need to overcome this subordination by redefining ourselves on our own terms… She views the redefinition of the self of women as a sacred journey, whose objective is not to denigrate males or masculinity, but rather to create a context in which women will be able to recognise and celebrate our femaleness (cited in Mokwena. 2003: 96).

I argue that a revalorist approach to women and theatre-making provides a possible solution and space to rectify the marginalised status of women in South African theatre; a context ‘in which women will be able to recognise and celebrate our femaleness’ (96). Furthermore, the concept of communitas provides an apt starting point for implementing a revalorist approach to theatre-making, as advocated by Mothertongue. I would argue that The ‘storehouse of possibilities’ that Turner (1990:12) speaks of in relation to liminality, provides women with the opportunity to redefine and transform the marginalised spaces they occupy into spaces of ‘…refusal, where they can say no to the coloniser, no to the downpressor…’(hooks 1990:150) and ‘redefine….[themselves] on…[their] own terms’ (Wood cited in Mokwena. 2003:96).

Narrative, Ritual and the Process of Remapping All over the world there are terrible terrible problems – and we must never stop addressing them, acknowledging people’s different stories and working to make things work better however that’s possible – but we also have to do more – we have to find the beautiful alternative, and you have done that here (Audience Member).

Intrinsic to my exploration of the relationship between liminality and communitas in an attempt to craft a revalorist way of making theatre, is the exploration of narrative and ritual in the work of Mothertongue. My interest in narrative lies in investigating the relationship between personal narratives and the collective master narrative. An example of the collective master narrative would be that of apartheid, where women’s voices were subsumed by the hegemonic voices of white men. In the context of theatre, Yvonne Banning affirms this in relation to protest theatre in South Africa:

…protest was not generally associated with gender. I’m afraid in the whole history of South African resistance, women’s issues have never take the forefront; they are still barely recognized. I think by and large…these issues and arguments are [still] continually marginalised…Women have been co-opted onto the system of male dominance that South Africans are not generally aware that it could be any other way. Male dominance is one of the meeting points between black and white traditional culture in South Africa (Banning Cited in Goodman, L. 1999: 9).

The legacy of the collective master narrative of apartheid appears to live on in post-apartheid South Africa, in the guise of gender inequity. According to Bellot:

Under Apartheid, racist beliefs were embedded in law and any criticism of the law was suppressed. These exclusionary laws have many social, political and economic ramifications that have outlasted the laws themselves. Furthermore, racially discriminatory social norms continue to affect people based on race, class and gender (Bellot, N. [online]. Retrieved on 10 October from

I argue that men’s experiences continue to be posited as applicable and normative for both men and women.
Collective master narratives in a sense become engrained in the psyches of not only men, but women too, and eventually become a belief structure. This in turn perpetuates the androcentricism of ‘the power elite to [continue] engage[ing] in mythmaking, producing oversimplified logics and stories that keep them in power’ (McWhinney, W., and J. Battista 1988: 48) bell hooks clarifies this further: Women are the group most victimised by sexist oppression. As with other forms of group oppression, sexism is perpetuated by institutional and social structures; by the individuals who dominate, exploit, or oppress; and by the victims themselves who are socialised to behave in ways that make them act in complicity with the status quo. Male supremacist ideology encourages women to believe we are valueless and obtain value only by relating to or bonding with men (hooks 1984: 43).

The revalorist approach to theatre-making proposed by Mothertongue, engages women in creating spaces where our voices are honoured and celebrated through communitas. I argue that this involves exploring the intersection between personal narratives of women and the collective master narrative of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. In order for this to occur, a process of remapping personal narratives in relation to the master narrative(s) needs to happen. The process of remapping, in the first instance, involves exploring the lived experiences, memories and events that have shaped women’s lives. The second aspect of remapping involves a process of changing the dominant collective master narrative that posits men’s experiences to be normative and applicable for both men and women. I argue that the collective master narrative imposes roles on women, whereas personal, lived experiences break open the rigidity of roles to allow more complex constructions of identity.

In the theatre that Mothertongue produces, performers and audiences are presented with the possibility of remapping their personal narratives. A signature of Mothertongue’s work is that of involving the audience in collective rituals. Examples of these are provided in the section on Uhambo - pieces of a dream. The role of ritual in this instance is to provide both audience and performers with the opportunity to physically engage in deconstructing old dominant narratives in constructing new ones that support the process of imagining and creating alternative new worlds (hooks 1990: 150) where women’s voices are honoured and celebrated through communitas. The physical enactment of ritual in theatre is a way of ‘giving people back their own bodies’, of making the experience of theatre ‘about healing’ (for actors and audiences); of ‘permeating boundaries by shared experience’ (Banning 2003: 7). By engaging the audience in collective rituals as part of the performance, the performers consciously create a community, in the moment of performance, founded on equality. As Turner suggests, it ‘leads to a feeling of communitas, a social bond between the participants. (Turner 2004: 77). In this way, the shared liminal qualities of ritual and theatre, come together to create the feeling of communitas.

The physical enactment of rituals to create new narratives challenges the myths imposed on women by androcentric discourse and provides a space for women to build the solidarity that bell hooks speaks of: We must learn to live and work in solidarity. We must learn the true meaning and value of Sisterhood…Unless we can show that barriers separating women can be eliminated, that solidarity can exist, we cannot hope to change and transform society as a whole (hooks 1984: 43-44).

At this point I would like to consider the production Uhambo – pieces of a dream, A Mothertongue production I conceptualised and directed. The production performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown (South Africa) and at the Intimate Theatre in Cape Town (South Africa) in 2004.

Uhambo – pieces of a dream in context Thank you for this. I shivered, I laughed, I was confused, I was a hairsbreadth from tears, and challenged morally, mentally and spiritually all the while. You bring bittersweet long breath in and out (Audience Member).

Uhambo – pieces of a dream is an integration of theatre and visual art in the form of performances, portraits and installations that probe the concept of democracy through the eyes of women taxi commuters in South Africa. The production took audience members on a journey that wove together women’s personal responses to life in South Africa post-1994.
It involved four performers, a director, a fine artist/designer, a writer, a portrait artist and a stage manager. In total, a company of nine women.

The production explored a revalorist approach to theatre-making by engaging the women who participated in its creation in processes of remapping as a way of challenging the androcentricism of apartheid and post-apartheid hegemony. The themes explored, challenged the continued marginalisation and silencing of women in post-apartheid South Africa. The form and theatrical choices employed by the production practically explored liminality and hybridity in relation to performance and its potential to contribute to the creation of communitas.

The Process

To tell a story and to receive a story, you have to be inside the story, to find your place in it (Steinman 1995: 121-122).

The creation process was divided into two phases. The first involved the director and one of the performers carrying out workshops with women from Bonne Esperance shelter for refugee women in Cape Town (South Africa), and St Anne’s Home, a home for destitute, homeless, abused and pregnant mothers in Cape Town (South Africa). The workshops employed drama as a means to explore women’s responses to the past ten year’s in South Africa. This phase also involved conducting a series of interviews with a variety of women taxi commuters around their responses to democratisation in South Africa. The fine artist/designer ran photographic workshops with the women from Bonne Esperance and St Anne’s. The workshops involved them taking photographs, which were based on a series of questions around what freedom meant to them. The concept of freedom was explored as it directly related to and encapsulated the ideals of post-apartheid South Africa. We were interested in exploring the relationship between the collective post-apartheid master narrative that declares freedom as a birthright and the lived realities and experiences of the women we worked with. The women then made books that told the stories of the photographs they had taken. The portrait artist painted six of the women we engaged with (either in the workshops or during the interviews). While she painted them, they spoke their stories. She recorded the stories, which accompanied the portraits. The books and portraits formed part of the performance, in the form of installations.

All the material collected was given to the writer who started finding the links and stories to feed into phase two, which involved the company of nine going into an intense four- week rehearsal period. Kali van der Merwe, the fine artist/designer would visit rehearsals regularly so that she could design the installations as material was being generated in rehearsals. Van der Merwe reflects on the fluidity of the process:

The process of creating Uhambo – pieces of a dream was very fluid, because it was workshopped. In my briefing sessions I never knew what to expect. This was immensely challenging because when creating the set and installations one is dealing with physical objects and much of one’s time is spent thinking about where you are going to get them? How you are going to put them together? And will they achieve the effect you want? Having solved all these practical problems and feeling very proud of myself, I would come to the next rehearsal only to find out I was dealing with a completely different play as the workshop process had taken its twists and turns. It taught me not to be precious about my idea; to flow, to let them come and most importantly let them go (Interview with Kali van der Merwe on 21 August 2004).

Text was generated out of the material gathered in phase one. The text was emailed to the writer, Malika Ndlovu, on a daily basis. She would rework it and send it back into the rehearsal process as quickly as she could, to be reworked on the floor. Ndlovu shares her experiences of the process: Trust was a constant element of the process, because if you as a creator / writer or director/ facilitator of a creative process, dare to let the stories tell themselves and lead the way, while engaging with input from several diverse creative individuals as well, trust is the anchor no matter what currents are flowing. We were all navigating into the unknown really and relying on our faith in each other, the creative process and the intentions behind the production we wanted to make…. It was a deliciously dynamic process in which I felt ever ready to try something else, another angle, integrate a new theme, as we forged ahead trying to shape the content of the production, while honouring the real-life stories and issues that interviewees had shared with us (Interview with Malika Ndlovu on 25 August 2004).

I would argue that the creation process of Uhambo - pieces of a dream was of a liminal nature, characterised by fluidity and the ‘fructile chaos’ (Turner 1990: 12) that Victor Turner speaks of when he describes the concept of liminality. Conversations were set up between the women who shared their stories, the performers, the director and the writer. This resulted in the text constantly being collaboratively transformed. The script was in the end multi-authored. The notion of multi-authoring, I argue, espouses a revalorist way of working and contributes towards creating a sense of communitas amongst all those involved in the creation process.

The decision to integrate fine arts and theatre further characterises the liminal nature of the process. Susan Broadhurst on liminal theatre, states that: ‘hybridisation appears to be one of the quintessential features of liminal theatre’ (Broadhurst 1999: 69). She goes on: A certain sense of excitement is generated by the liminal: for instance, in many of the works, feelings close to disquiet and discomfort are experienced. A certain ‘shift-shape’…. is signalled, together with repetition (a repetitiveness which foregrounds not sameness but difference), parody, playfulness and a delegitimation of authorial authority. Moreover liminal performance strives to play to the edge of the possible, continually challenging not only performance practice but also traditional aesthetic concepts (p1).

This, together with the notion of conversations and multi-authorship, defines the liminality of the creation process of Uhambo – pieces of a dream and undoubtedly informed the liminal quality of the end product. The notion of liminality is not new to African performance forms, however, in South Africa, the dominant, mainstream forms of theatre adopt a Western model of theatre. The majority of mainstream productions still take place in proscenium arch theatres that attract largely white middle class audiences. Banning refers to this as barriers introduced by ‘western performance (the dominant mode in recent years)’ (Banning cited in Goodman, L.1999:14). She goes on to state that ‘…I think forms may be coming back together, which is very exciting’ (14). This suggests a more hybrid form that encompasses and integrates performance arts, movement, storytelling and oral histories, which, Uhambo - pieces of a dream, I would argue, managed to do.

The Performance

There is so much. Shards of memories, fragments of sorrows, interlocking, interweaving threads of sweetness and shock. My hands are trembling unexpectedly (Audience Member).

The performance took place in three spaces, namely: two minibus taxis and a theatre space that had been transformed into a performative installation space. This meant the audience journeyed with the action. On arrival at the theatre audience members were divided into four groups and stamped on the hand accordingly. They were asked to wait in a queue behind a flag with an image that corresponded with their stamp image. The experience was much like that of queuing at a taxi rank at peak hour. I would argue that the taxi rank is a liminal space – a space of transition. After approximately ten minutes of queuing, two groups were ushered into the theatre that had been transformed into an installation space and the other two groups entered the two taxis respectively.

In retrospect, I recognise that the decision to utilise minibus taxis as alternative performance spaces was inspired by the desire to strive for ‘new forms and structures’ (Turner 1990: 12) and to challenge ‘not only performance practice but also traditional aesthetic concepts’ (Broadhurst 1999: 1). Performances took place on the travelling taxis. The notion of performance on the move further denotes the quintessence of liminality. Journeying suggests one is moving from one point to another, even if one is not clear where or what the end point is. It is an ‘in-between’ space, a space that allows one to dream, to transit, to transform. While on the taxis, the audience heard stories from a lesbian ‘gaartjie’ (money collector and tout). She related the difficulties she experienced being a woman in a male dominated profession. She talked about a lesbian rape and the incompetence of the police in treating the matter with the seriousness it deserved; suggesting that accessing South Africa’s democratic constitution is not necessarily an easy process.

On the other taxi the audience were caught in the middle of an argument between a homeless South African woman who had been waiting for a house for three years, and a woman refugee from Burundi. The xenophobic outburst that ensued placed the audience in a position that evoked what Broadhurst means when she speaks of ‘feelings that are close to disquiet and discomfort’ (Broadhurst 1999: 1). The audience at first did not know whether the performers were part of the audience or not. Invariably members of the audience engaged in the argument, themselves becoming performers in that moment. The range of responses included some taking the side of the refugee by arguing for her. Others would tell the refugee woman to ‘shut up’ so that the homeless woman could continue telling her story. Others wanted them to resolve their argument so that they could part amicably, while others were too afraid to comment when asked their opinion. The liminal space of the travelling taxi, I would say, blurred the divide between audience and performer, resulting in a constant shifting of roles on the audience’s part from theatrical audience to theatrical and/or social performer and back. The taxi space gave them licence to participate in and shape the action. I would argue that they moved in and out of awareness of being in a play. This movement placed them literally and metaphorically in a liminal space.

The theatre cum installation space was divided into two spaces: the external garish face of representations of democracy characterised by ‘Proudly South African’ slogans, and the raw reality of what actually was being experienced by our three taxi protagonists. The audience transited through a doorway and a passageway of coarse salt from the one space into the other. The coarse salt was used to evoke the rawness of these women’s experiences in relation to the ‘proudly South African’ sloganeering. There were no seats in the theatre, which was filled with the lone presence of a performer standing on stones. All around her were installations, portraits and quotes from other women who were part of the workshops and interviews and whose stories and experiences informed the creation of the performed stories. The performer in this space embodied the three taxi stories. It was in this space that the audience heard these characters’ experiences and stories in more detail. Each story was performed in a different space in the room and the audience shifted from one space to the other. They were in close proximity to the performer and, at a specific point were asked to help her build a house. This served to create a sense of communitas.
Furthermore, it was in this space that fine arts, technology and live performance were integrated. The integration of these mediums in the performance of the stories corresponds with Broadhurst’s notion of hybridisation being characteristic of liminal performance.

The use of ritual in Uhambo – pieces of a dream was what ultimately created the opportunity for audience members and performers to remap the collective master narrative. They were able to engage their personal narratives and in so doing created a sense of communitas. At the end of the third story, the three taxi characters entered the theatre/installation space and occupied spaces, with the performer who embodied their stories in the space on the stones, as in the beginning when the audience first entered the theatre. It was here that the audience could tangibly make the connection between what they had experienced in the taxi and what they were experiencing in the theatre/installation space. The performers invited the audience to engage in various rituals at each of the spaces. They were handed stones with messages on them. The messages read: ‘piece my body together’; ‘make new words’, and ‘write a note and post it in my house’. Each of these requests connected to the three characters.

It would be useful at this point to outline what each of the three stories theatrically entailed in the theatre/installation space. Station one: The Burundian refugee’s story was told with the use of a voice over and slide projection of the stamp that, prior to 2000, appeared on all refugee permits. It reads ‘Republic of South Africa. Temporary Permit to Prohibited Person’. The performer engaged physically with the voice over and projection, which was superimposed over her body. Station two: the homeless woman’s story was told through physical theatre that centred around a black council dirt bin filled with crumpled up letters; letters she had sent to the president and had ended up in the bin. Station three: The lesbian ‘gaartjie’s’ story was performed with a video of the ‘gaartjie’s’ lips projected onto the performer who slowly tore an A1 sheet of paper as she told the story of how she had been raped. At one point she turned the paper around to reveal a faint photocopy of a naked woman’s torso.
At station one the audience were invited to make new words using the letters from ‘prohibited person’. They could rearrange laminated letters. At station two they were asked to write a note to the homeless woman and post it in a model of a house. At station three they were asked to piece the bits of paper together to reconstruct the woman’s torso.

The production provided the structure for rituals to take place and the audience filled them with individual personal experiences. To illustrate this, I have included some examples of the notes the audience wrote:
‘I, too, hope to have a house someday.’ ‘I wish you well in your home – but somehow it is more special, not because it was built by anonymous people, but because it was built by you and me and other friends.’
‘The warmth of your support from each other gives me hope for us women.’
‘None of these things have happened to me, but I feel connected. I understand – so thank you.’
‘Thank you for making me feel.’
‘Amazing what women can achieve together.’
‘You have given me the courage to write and speak about what I have been afraid of writing.’
‘Being involved in the performance was good. You created a warm space with some razor wire!’
‘Hi. I am NC. I am 50 years of wishing for a house for my children for the future.’
‘I really enjoyed reflecting and engaging with the work and feeling quietly hopeful in the end.’
‘This was an amazing, beautiful, moving, enjoyable, uncomfortable experience.'

The performed stories reflected the collective master narrative. The ritual enabled both audience and performers to engage their personal narratives, to remap, to create new narratives and ultimately to reconstruct their own narrative. By enabling the audience to complete the drama through ritual enactments, performed together with the performers, they were able to transform their status of victim to woman doing, woman living, woman transforming her own life. The physical engagement with the ritual created a space for communitas; a shared experience in which individuals considered and shifted their personal narratives within a collective environment, thus birthing a new narrative comprising individual narratives. Phil Jones states that: ‘Ritual fulfils an emotional or physical need which results in a shared experience – a coming together’ (Jones 1996: 249). This coming together is precisely what informs the new narrative; the sense of a collective, shared, co-created narrative as opposed to one that has been imposed by androcentric norms and values. By engaging with the rituals the audience brought their personal experiences to bear on what they did. The relationship between ritual and personal experience is what created the shared experience. The physical enactment of ritual infused with personal experience created the narrative both as shared and personal; a narrative that was not fixed in the monolith of the collective master narrative.

The conversation between ritual and personal experience allowed theatrical liminality to spill over into social liminality. As in the taxi scenes, the audience could choose their role. Some remained as audience members and others went into role of performer.

Conclusion Today I changed my mind and felt more optimistic (Audience Member).

Exploring the notion of liminality and its relationship to communitas has enabled me to begin naming, in theoretical terms, what Mothertongue endeavours to achieve in its revalorist approach to theatre making in the South African context. The need for a women’s theatre collective that focuses on women sharing, creating and expressing experiences and personal narratives is evident. The marginalisation and silencing of women’s voices in a male dominated, androcentric environment, needs to be challenged. Creating a space for women to honour and celebrate their experiences through theatre is largely informed by the desire for women to define ourselves in our own terms.

Theatre, because of its intrinsic liminal qualities, provides the ideal opportunity to explore the relationship between liminality and communitas. It provides a space where ‘memory and dreams, past and present, the everyday and the once-in-a-lifetime are reconciled and woven together upon a single loom of time’ (Steinman 1995: 72). It is in this space where women are able to begin the revalorist process of re-mapping and creating a new, shared narrative, which is free from the impositions of androcentricism.

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