As ever, Bessie: colours billowing from the cauldron

Denise Newman(right) and Ntombi Makhutshi (left) perform in the drama theatre production, As Ever, Bessie, in Grahamstown, Tuesday, 5 July 2016, at the National Arts Festival.

Denise Newman(right) and Ntombi Makhutshi (left) perform in the drama theatre production, As Ever, Bessie, in Grahamstown, Tuesday, 5 July 2016, at the National Arts Festival. Photo: CuePix/Jodi van Vuuren

We meet Bessie Head as a crazy-wild Coloured antey in an African print dress in an African airport transition hall throwing her stuff around, anxiously trying to find a light.

It’s for her chain-smoking habit but it’s also a metaphor of the writer searching eternally through the remnants of her African, South African past in a mind which is fritzing.

Head, strongly played by Denise Newman, is helped by kindly doctor Caroline Nandi Habib, played by Ntombi Makhutshi, and this chance meeting is a springboard into both their troubled lives.

This, at last, is the story of African literary giant Bessie Head. We have heard of her here and there, in my case, as the inspiration for a First Physical Theatre piece.

The play notes quotes Bessie writing about her peculiar birth, in a mental hospital in ‘Maritzburg.

Head, who died in 1986, wrote: “(because)my mother was white and she had acquired me from a black man, she was judged insane and committed to the mental hospital while pregnant”.

It was the only way the apartheid authorities could or wanted to understand this cross-racial act of lovemaking.

It’s a joy to have the lives of our largely unheralded authors brought back to us on stage with all their nuances, foibles and personal tragedies; experiences from which their words flowed into the world.

Head’s life is one of exile to Botswana spawned by an ugly brew of social personal hurts, among them a cheating partner, shattering episodes of mental instability, and the ever-present grinding blade of 1960s and ’70s racial segregation.

In our story, she is leaving her beloved Africa for the first time, and despite her ticket to an international writing programme in Iowa being premised on international acknowledgment of her work, the disclocation is igniting a meltdown.

Newman delivers a towering performance which plunges and rockets as the intrinsic warmth, love and humanity of Bessie Head floats out amid the blunt, blurting woes tannie with a passion for drinking beer.

Makhutshi’s performance feels a touch muted, perhaps more than is demanded by her character’s empathetic role as a foil to Bessie’s creative and anxious storms.

It’s all in revelation (spoiler alert!) but in fact, Makhutshi’s moment of power does not arrive when she talks about her excommunication as a result of her marriage to a Muslim man, but in an angry monologue delivered in full-on Xhosa.

This is a feature of this festival and I am curious how it fits in with the anti-colonial discourse which gives the domination of English text and word the the bird. So we don’t get an explanation but it was cool to simply feel that intensity and authenticity.

The journalist in me can’t let go of a curiosity about what she was actually saying, especially when members of the audience responded in Xhosa.

There was a minor problem with a GT stripe down the front of the projection screen which interfered with Archie Birch’s wonderful but not intrusive backdrop of hand painted African airport scenes reflecting the distinctive ’70s.

This is marvellous, story-telling. It is a play which must travel.

Bessie Head’s story must be heard and absorbed and her books, like Maru, When Rain Clouds Gather and Question of Power, should be read and appraised by the broader SA public.

It is  a world premier and there were a few issues of  pace and rhythm which need directorial tuning.

At times the drone of the airport felt too monotonous and left me feeling lethargic and my attention dipping but As Ever, Bessie is a fine, wonderfully observed piece of work deserving of its standing ovation now and in future.

As Ever, Bessie is on at 20h30 tonight (Wed) and at 15h00 tomorrow (Thurs 7 July). Programme notes and booking here.


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