At first glance it looks like a titillating student production promising expanses of bare flesh and sex. “Pop, lick, squich, ouch, yeees, no, sho, too big, yikes, yuck…” promises the programme. But Pop i Cheri, while it is about virginity, is a lot deeper than that.
Market Theatre Laboratory co-directors Tumeka Matintela and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi explain the play was inspired by the furore around bursaries being given to virgins in KwaZulu Natal.
The uThukela District Municipality’s Maidens Bursary awarded to 16 young women sparked nationwide debate last year, with the Commission for Gender ruling it unconstitutional.
“We wanted to see, from the perspective of someone who needs the bursary but who is not a virgin, what would they do?” says Matintela.
So the cast of six, together with Matintela and Mgeyi, with Ncumisa Ndimeni and Nosipho Buthelezi wielding their pens, started devising a script centred on a young woman from a poor home who is no longer a virgin.
The main character, played by Boikobo Masibi, desperately wants this bursary so she can extricate herself from poverty, and ventures forth on an odyssey to reclaim her virginity.
With her, we enter the world of magic, superstition, promises and deceit. A world in which ‘prophets’ and ‘healers’ weave dreams of hope and redemption while lining their pockets with the desperation of the poor, their paths well marked by pamphlets stuck against lampposts and city walls.
“There are thes churches that promise to purify your body, present a new you to yourself, and we have these traditional doctors that believe medication can help you regain something you’ve lost, give you a new version of you,” says Matintela.
Pamphlets littering Joburg promise you can find lost lovers, win the Lotto, regain your virginity, make your penis bigger.
“It’s ridiculous. But I’m sure there are people that desperate to try out these things.”
The premise, and the character’s journey, raises a myriad of deeper issues.
One of these is one that affects young people such as the Market Theatre Laboratroy students on a daily basis: Social media.
This democratic platform where everyone can have their say, is equally anarchic, with the loudest and most strategic ruling the space. Matintela and Mgeyi talk about how this vicious brew, which is particularly poisonous for youth insecure about their status and worth, forces conformity.
“Social media bashes people who are different. The moment you do something different, you get bashed,” says Matintela. Our heroine is, of course, different, and being ‘bashed’ by peers can have serious consequences.
Corruption is another theme that emerges and, being students, they manage to weave in the allegations that some people paid to win SAMAs. And of course, in South Africa, if you want something like your virginity back, you just have to find the right person to bribe to sign the declaration.
In fact, Matintela says writer Nosipho Buthelezi, who is from KZN, told them the women do bribe the mamas who check maidens’ virginity, so they can get a white dot on their foreheads and participate in the Reed Dance.
HIV is also dealt with, and in fact in the play the actual speech delivered by one of the KwaZulu Natal provincial ministers is read out, in which he tries to explain that the virgin bursary scheme was a way of limiting the spread of HIV infections.
“As if women are responsible for spreading HIV,” scoffs Matintela.
Patriarchy and sexism are also obvious issues that raise their heads, as handing out bursaries to virgins is the result of a patriarchal culture in the first place. And of course boys can’t get tested for virginity.
“It’s good that 16 more people got to go to school,” says Mgeyi, “but then your virginity does not belong to you.”
Matintela explains that the young women who got the bursary lose it if they lose their virginity. They get tested every holiday, she says. “And ‘varsity is supposed to be a time you have fun.”
Sugar Daddies, one of the reasons touted by the KZN municipality to reward virgins in the first place, is also an issue that Pop iCheri deals with.
News24 reported that Uthukela District Municipality mayor Dudu Mazibuko stated the virgin bursaries were created to deter young women from getting involved with older men.
“Young girls are more vulnerable, they are the ones that fall in love with sugar daddies, get diseases and fall pregnant and then their lives are messed up,” Mazibuko was reported as saying.
It is these modern ramifications of traditional culture that are being interrogated and critiqued by the young theatremakers.
They’ve done their research too.
Although initially they were going to simply make a sexy, titilating show, the more they worked with it, the deeper it went.
Matintela and Mgeyi explain that the entire cast had to do their homework and collect stories as well as dig deep online. In doing so, they discovered how people were being judged, and made to suffer, because of their sexual orientation and choices, and the patriarchal values by which they were being judged.
“Initially it was supposed to be about the experience of losing your virginity, but we realised during workshopping how far this story can go,” said Mgeyi.
Pop iCheri is on at St Andrew’s Hall tomorrow (5 July) at 20h30 and on Thursday at 14h30. Tickets are only R50, book here.
- This content was sponsored by the Market Theatre Foundation.
Director: Tumeka Matintela, Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi
Featured Artists: Vusi Nkwenkwezi, Boikobo Masibi, Darlington Khoza, Pereko Makgathi, Khanyiswa Mazwi,Mthokozisi Dhludhlu
Company: Market Theatre Laboratory
By the Market Theatre Laboratory
Cast: Vusi Nkwenkwezi, Boikobo Masibi, Darlington Khoza, Pereko Makgothi, Khanyiswa Mazwi, Mthokozisi Dhludhlu
Directors: Tumeka Matintela and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi
Writers: Ncumisa Ndimeni and Nosipho Buthelezi