Set in the specific context of grey-area Joubert Park in the late 1980s, staging Curl Up and Dye now begs the question: what meaning for our present can be brought to audiences by the play today, and, given the racism of the characters, how does it relate to a dialogue around racial unity for our future? I don’t think any director can take on this text without asking acute political and artistic questions – even if, or even more that, this show originated in a project for AFDA students.
This is not the intention of the play. It merely bears witness to five women characters without trying to resolve any of their issues. Except, in this production, for a hint that the changed ending to the play introduces potential for the black assistant, Miriam, to find something else. This is created symbolically by the educated nursing sister, Dudu’s, text book being picked up by Miriam, who remains looking at it as the lights go down.
Thematically, the play shows the inability of these characters, excepting Dudu, to deal with the socio-political change that was shifting under their South African, marginalized, urban feet as the forces of black resistance subverted white supremacy. Especially, in this text and with comic effect, to the class and assumed intellectual superiority of lower class whites.
The play was initially described as protest theatre, a definition which itself begs many questions, especially when written as realism. Although the female characters bond in a shared common experience of their being abused by men (much of which is cut from this text), watching television soapies and fantasizing about financial release, the play ends as it begins, with the power dynamics of racism reinforced by the characters who are unable to change in the way that their society is. A re-entrenched polarization of domestic male and racial power is how the play ends. Except that this production offers a potential liberation through education which is not in the original script.
The humour is unsettling. How do we feel about laughing at the characters’ stereotypical racism? The production does not ask any questions of itself, and the audience, mainly comprised of high school children, loved it. This in itself rattles me. Being realism, the audience is not directly confronted through political theatre devices to interrogate their own discrimination.
Set in a hair-dressing salon that has seen better days and more clientele, the white characters try and hold onto a swiftly disappearing past. Miriam, despite one monologue in which she rails against her exploitation, sublimates herself to this out of economic necessity and Charmaine, the druggie prostitute, exploits if for cigarettes, money, the use of the telephone, cash and friendship – the last not developed here as it exists in the original text.
The State of Emergency, the late apartheid context of forced evictions, black resistance, troops in the townships and unequal education for black children is all placed in the characters’ backgrounds, and we get that.
What we don’t get is enough of the characters to really care about them and to feel the terrible tension that sits below the gestures of human connection; a tension that finally blows towards the end. Is this lack because of cuts and re-writings, or do the moments get lost due to the direction of rhythm and pace? And, if you have changed the original spoken text so much, can you really call it the text? Should you not acknowledge this revisiting? This is not the play Sue Pam-Grant wrote.
Full of fear and prejudice, and in denial of her own domestic abuse, Rolene, the manageress, tries to be kind to everyone, but ultimately uses her racism as a defense against her self-denial which serves to keep things as they are at the precise moment when help is offered – but from a black woman – and her loyal client and thus friend, Mrs du Bois forces her to make a choice along lines of racial alliance. At the end of the original text Rolene is back on the ‘phone to Denzil, the abusive husband, as she is at the beginning. But director in this staging, Wynne Bredenkamp, takes her off stage and places Miriam there, which is an interesting choice.
Typical to the process of Barney Simon, Pam-Grant conducted extensive interviews with residents of Joubert Park to find her characters. The class pretentious Mrs du Bois, with her mixed metaphors (which seemed to be lost today, I mean, no one laughed), is classic.
Besides being written to bear witness to marginalized voices, the play was also conceived as a platform to make work for an all-female cast and the script offers strong character roles for actresses, which is why, presumably, it keeps being performed, politically problematic as it is.
The ensemble cast works hard to fulfil their tasks as actresses. All the questions I have surrounding the show relate to conceptual and directorial choices.
Stylistically, the realism is hard to stage without a detailed dressing of a box set and age-appropriate casting. But Sue Diepeveen convincingly physically and vocally interprets the role of Mrs du Bois and renders her with a clear understanding of the character’s dramatic function.
Not so with both the rewriting, interpretation and playing of the character of Charmaine which was both over-written and vocally over-played. This is a very specific character type from the time of Pam-Grant’s original writing of the play, familiar to the stage of Paul Slabolepszy and the songs of James Phillips. This white, working class voice is familiar to my generation, but the language is not well-handled here. They over-do the swearing, which, in the lingo, is sort of just, well, there. There as being normal. The swear words do not need to be heavy-handedly, over-enunciated.
Also, the function of the character in the play is not understood. In this rendering she takes up too much space through overly blunt, reworked text. She should be continuously present in the background until she brings the revelation that Dudu is the black woman living below Rolene and Denzil’s apartment who, knowing the nightly abuse, calls out Rolene to leave the relationship. This moment happens too quickly, and, because of edits, makes its point too fast for processing.
My biggest objection is the re-writing of Charmaine’s originally sensitive monologue about the reality of prostitution. Here it is aggressively presented in graphic images of the bodily abuse which she has to suffer. Why? There is little of her story in this production. We missed the Jakkals/Quintus/The General/her scoring of drugs on the Salon’s ‘phone because she wasn’t given the stage space to initially endear herself to us. To this audience, she became an amusing travesty, a caricature. Her costume is simply horrible.
In terms of staging, possibly to compensate for the lack of a full set, the director has put a door sensor where the front door should be, which sounds every time a character enters or exits the salon. In life, this sound signifies the arrival of a customer to a shop, but, as there are no clients in this salon, it becomes a ding-dong soundtrack of every entrance and exit of each character through the front door, which we can clearly see and imagine anyway. And because it also kept going off when the actors were upstage, it became an overly symbolic part of the staging, saying what? A perhaps compensatory device for the lack of a set became symbolically over-significant of nothing. And very distracting. Triggered by motion, it became a motif and not a naturalistic staging device. This accident of absurdism could seriously derail the show, but neither the actors nor the audience seemed to notice its annoying intrusion. Point made: an unnecessary construction.
And while discussing the set, the pink was not faded enough to give a sense of the faded past of the salon. And as for props, some detail given to the cape would have been appreciated in terms of building the realism, instead of the use of a fraying piece of pink material.
The stands were full, mainly with high school children – which is all the more reason that the politics of the piece should have been carefully considered. The teachers would have chosen this play for their students to attend because of its history as a piece of South African protest theatre. They loved the crude vulgarity of Charmaine, here ballsy, who should have rather been a vapourised character, but what other responses were elicited?
How did these students respond to the racism of the characters? They laughed. They were quite rightly shocked when Rolene used the ‘K’ word directly to Miriam. But are they going to leave the theatre and debate and discuss or become mobilized as activists?
A well-known text, now tampered with edits and rewritings, and, especially, the horrible rewriting of Charmaine’s monologue to no real creative conceptual effect (except to unnecessarily shock), and although well-acted by the cast, does not sit well in the present.
It’s been done before, by Pam-Grant herself, but casting a ‘coloured’ actress to play racist, ‘white’ Rolene presents narrative problems which the text does not support. Is she ‘playing for white’? If so, there are serious problems located in her own racism that are not written in the text.
The decentering of Rolene to place Miriam, well-acted by Miselwa Ngamlana, at the center of the story is very interesting, but none of the characters’ stories actually get heard. The play becomes an inter-racial conflict with nothing much shifting, which is problematic in our contested present.
Curl Up and Dye has it’s last show at the National Arts Festival on Saturday night at 10. Book HERE.
Credits: Directed by Wynne Bredenkamp; written by Sue Pam-Grant; performed by Mariscka Coetzee, Ruth Plasket, and Miselwa Ngamlana.