I booked for Wena Mamela when the original programme was out, planning to watch halfway through its run. By the time I got to CT I was watching the last performance – programme changes – one always wants to review whilst a run is ongoing.
Anyway. I’ve never watched Mamela Nyamza perform. It’s something else altogether. I’m now a follower of Nyamzism. I’m a new Nyamzist.
She is incredible. Nothing is taken for granted. The stage is simple; her body the canvas.
Relentless. Flower pots carried out. Photos posed for. Yoh yoh yoh you you you. Questions. Relentless.
Pot plants are laid out a few at a time, fetched from offstage. Every so often an item is added as she emerges again from the wings. Flip-flops, gardening gloves, a raincoat. With the raincoat she hurries, drops are falling! A big sunflower stands out amongst the rest of the pot plants.
Dressed in yellow bikini, her stature tall and prominent – she mirrors the sunflower. The photo-op ensues. It begins with us. “OK please turn on your cell phones” imitating the CT Fringe message. We laugh. A number of people shamelessly snap away, at her instruction to “please take a photo of me”. “OK you can switch off your phones. I’m going to start the show now.”
When did the performance really start? Now, when she says so? Five minutes ago when she started laying out the pot plants? Or was it happening already during the pre-set, when in bikini she moves in spotlight whilst we take our seats. And what was happening before that?
Our performances in life begin before we know it. Who decides when it starts?
So, the show ‘commences’. In show-girl getup she strikes a pose. And another. And another. Another. Another again. More. Like the sunflower amidst the regular range of plants, is she a special fad, because of her perceived uniqueness? She is increasingly exhausted, physically extending her body, used and used up by each shot from the camera. She deteriorates, still fighting to maintain a smile. Her legs can no longer carry her weight, the weight of pleasing those who require her happily grinning face.
Her work with the ‘body mask’ – I don’t know what else to call it – is magnificent. It’s eerie and unsettling. “Yoh, yoh, yoh”, exclamations of disagreement and dissatisfaction, become “you, you, you”. And then “ma… ma… mamela!” repetitively, to a disquieting climax.
She is questioned. It’s deeply personal. (And political too). Eventually she sheds her skin, removes her outer shell, exposes what’s left underneath. The sunflower is positioned instead of the body mask’s head. A pretty flower. Just a body. Is this all she is? She sings Brenda Fassie’s “Weekend Special”. Use her up until you’ve had enough. Use her when you need her, if it makes you feel good.
Wena Mamela is dark. It’s unnerving. It’s uncomfortable. Good – it’s meant to be. It’s meant to shake you as she shakes and undulates in response to… too much.
I can write and write on the symbolism and manifesting imagery the work is laden with. Wena Mamela is finished at the CT Fringe, but it will stay with me a long while. The programme says it was a work in progress. I hope to see the full version soon. – Sarah Roberson