“It’s Neo Feminism,” said Cate Hornby as we wandered around the Village Green in Grahamstown selling our play, The Savage Sisters. We had been talking about how many strong young women were coming to see our play. There were also the more expected older women and men in the audiences but the young women were the definite majority. What surprised me was how vocal they were in their applause and praise of the message of the play. I also envied them their incredible sense of their own abilities and strength and wished I had been more like them twenty years ago. Cate and I agreed that the young women today are no longer crippled by needing to break new ground. They are taking ownership of their power to be whoever they want to be. In spite of the odds against them.
This was borne out for me by the plethora of plays about women by women which were at the festival this year. Although these plays didn’t always attract the attention of the mainstream critics, there were at least ten plays which dealt with women’s issues. At one extreme there was comic lightheartedness such as the play called Kiss Kiss in which two young and very pretty performers were marketing themselves unashamedly as Barbie dolls. On our first night at the festival they were looking for help on how to pitch their show. I suggested they say it was a parody of the fashion industry and a satirical comment about models. They were apparently very grateful for this advice as days later I was amazed to see them turn up at our show. Ours was a rather more hard-hitting piece about the difficulties facing women writers in the 18th century and how things have changed (or not) in the present. They came back stage to say how much they were moved by the show. Duty bound, my cast and I immediately went to see their show. It was a carefully choreographed comic piece about two models obsessed with their weight and looks. And it made a biting comment about the way friendship often goes out of the window with women when a man comes into their lives. Even if he is a dummy, as he was literally in this case. I thought the piece very honest and funny even as it made a very real point about the competition women sometimes engage in when men are around. We were all reduced to tears of laughter. But the issue was serious.
The next play we saw was the intriguingly named A Woman’s Bum is Like the Moon. This piece drew the audiences because of a provocative poster which showed a woman’s naked bottom (which was constantly being pinched as the posters disappeared regularly). The play dealt with the many aspects of most women’s lives: the wife, the mother, the kugel, and the overlooked young spirit who wants to have fun like the men and refuses to grow old. The most telling point of this play for me was the end where the actress stood in front of the audience in her underwear telling us about herself as a young woman today. As a woman she isn’t able to compete with the perfect model types, she doesn’t want to end up a slave to domesticity, and yet all she wants is the freedom to explore what she really wants to do with her life without any constraints imposed on her because of her sex. It was a brave and honest piece, and though, not flawless, it was laudable. My cast just loved it and gave the actress, Samantha Gray, a standing ovation.
The other plays about women dealt with real and contemporary issues. Behind the Veil was a look at the world from the perspective of a woman who wants more than her Muslim husband allows her. 37 Degrees of Fear was a piece of physical theatre which looked at the murder of a Grahamstown woman, Yvonne Wellman, and explored the way women are often unable to feel safe in the very communities in which they live. And then there was the UKZN’s own avante guarde production of BlueBeard directed by Tammy Hammerslag. Though it had men sometimes playing the roles of women who were victims of physical abuse, it explored the whole issue of domestic violence in a most creative and illuminating way. Then there was Cherry Under My Foot, a two hander by women exploring the materialistic life of a copywriter in the city, who has a vocal subconscious who undermines her superficiality. And even the protected male turf of Herman Charles Bosman was plundered by two women. Bosman performed by women, the purists might cry? They did the job admirably, I thought, and much better than any old ex-Patricks I have known, if you ask me. There wasn’t much of a feminist message in this play though, other than saying that women can do anything men can do. Even play Oom Schalk Lourens!
There were even more plays about women, but I couldn’t see them all. And even though audiences continued to flock to the many plays in which one man, or two men or even three ran about in their underpants (and sometimes a bit more) and spoke in Afrikaans accents and told silly jokes and danced with chickens, in the quiet corners of the festival women’s voices were being heard.
And that brought me back to my conversation with Cate on the Village Green. What is this Neo Feminism exactly? “Women are no longer attacking men, in any way,’ said Cate, “but they are urging women to take their future into their own hands. This is the same message Mary Wollstonecraft has in our play. She did not hate men. She just thought that women should just take more responsibility to do more with their lives.”
So this made me think a little more. What exactly was the message in my play in the light of this Neo Feminism? Even though the three authors in The Savage Sisters have a heated debate about their work, and there is a real competitive edge throughout, they form an understanding in the end where compassion for each other’s difficulties in making their voices heard is the tie that binds them together. So perhaps that is the message to take out of the festival. Competition is inevitable between women (and men for that matter). But women’s voices will be heard even more strongly when the competitiveness becomes secondary to compassion.