Yissus! South Africa is a hard place to live. Inequality claws at you incessantly, clutches at your ankles and holds you back. Poverty and desperation squabble on the streets and violence stalks every gutter.
Getting through the day is like trying to climb a massive sand dune, slipping back with every step. You can make headway, but it is slow and grinding. And if you do reach any level of comfort, guilt comes to haunt you. Guilt that you have a roof over your head in the rains while thousands try to sleep in wet blankets. Guilt that you have no more R2 coins to hand out to car guards and beggars because you don’t have enough money to pay your rates bill and your water is about to be cut off. Yet guilty because you have a rates bill to pay.
That’s just the economics, the money side of things.
Then there’s race and I’m white so there’s fokkol I can say to the Zulu at the Kimberley Bar who is proud to be able to complain without a trace of irony that he is a minority in this racist city.
Then there’s privilege and I’m white and male so I’m expected to do double time in this life china, no matter how many jobs I might create or youngsters I might tutor.
Then there’s gender and women’s rights and Facebook posts screaming at me that all men are rapists and I should be ashamed of being born with a dick.
Then there’s the rhinos and the wholesale destruction of the environment which no-one really cares about except the wealthy and white despite the fact everyone’s existence relies on clean water and air and green trees and fishes.
Walk out the house and there’s a clamour of calamity, a riot of righteousness, a fucking pandemonium of pain. Only old Table Mountain sits silently above it all, waiting for this shit to pass.
So forgive me if I’m pissed off when a pair of performers try hitting me over the head with their message of the suffering women endure.
Creating a work that aims to deliver a message is problematic in itself. Do you really think that whatever message you convey is going to alter anyone’s behaviour? And then, mangling performing styles in a desperate attempt to voice your protest, to convey the message, adds insult to injury. Not my injury, but theatre’s.
I’m not injured, just angry, which is the only reaction Barbed Wire Wallpaper allowed, other than utter disinterest. And I’m not angry at the oppression of women, rural women in particular, I’m angry at self-righteous proselytising dressed up as performance.
I’ve been upset about the shit women have to deal with for a long time and sitting in the venue, I was on Nondumiso Lwazi Msimanga and Dorianne Alexander’s side. Before the house lights went off I was three-quarters of the way to liking their work. They almost got me across that last step during the first half of their show which involved ritual. The repetition of sweeping, mopping, polishing, washing, and the tedium and solace it contains. There was something there. But for ritual to be effective it requires the dissolution of character in favour of archetype, which did not take place. Msimanga’s furious gaze kept getting in the way, keeping me at bay. She remained a character and her anger was directed at an external personality or force. But instead of being sympathetic to her anger, joining her gaze, it felt as if it was directed at us, at me, and I had no idea what I had done wrong.
Then there was the shift from ritual to narrative. Suddenly, there was a story. That in itself was jarring, made worse by Msimanga pulling plastic imitation barbed wire through her thighs, the significance of which I couldn’t quite grasp. Abortion, maybe? Then the barbed wire hanging. Then Alexander’s wailing so that as the lights mercifully went down, these characters, who started with a semblence of agency, however circumscribed, had simply become victims. Victims I guess I was supposed to feel sorry for but instead felt nothing but apathy and a rising mix of anger and despair at the lack of inclusion.
It was later suggested during a post-show smoke that perhaps I didn’t ‘get’ the work because I’m not a woman. Seriously?
Which leads to the debates over race and gender and privilege in South Africa. Actually, they’re not debates, they’re arguments. And therein lies the problem. Each of those issues is complex and nuanced and yet instead of inviting everyone to the table and trying to gently unpick the knot so that we can better understand one another, the politically motivated activists are standing on tables and denouncing everyone who is not part of their cause, and often beyond that – those who are not part of their race or gender. Filled with self-righteous victimhood, multiplied by social media outrage, in an ego-driven effort to shout the loudest, jumped-up advocates for social justice are polarising debates rather than pulling up a chair so that we can reach consensus. And everyone appeases their conscience with a Viva, or withdraws with their Visa.
If Msimanga and Alexander really wanted to use theatre as a medium to communicate the plight of women, all they needed to do was pull up a chair. Bring me, bring the audience into this experience, don’t stand and wail and moan and pretend to strangle yourself with plastic imitation barbed wire.
I’m tired of being shouted at, of being blamed for shit, of being made to feel guilty. Fuck that, I’m fatigued by outrage.
— Steve Kretzmann