Herstory Museum’s four-day return to Joburg theatre allows black women to see their dehumanising portrayal in history.
Former Witsie, Nonkululeko Mashiyi’s directorial debut, Herstory Museum, returned to the theatre circuit at Joburg Theatre in May 2022, after being showcased at Wits Theatre and the South Africa State Theatre. The play follows a young Emily, trapped in an eerie and enchanted museum that exhibits statues of black women from different periods of South African history.
In it, David Whitlock, the museum’s curator, gives untrue accounts of the states of black women, depicting them as downtrodden victims. However, Emily quickly realises that what he is saying is different from what is written on the placards under each statue.
As Emily tries to leave, there seems to be an invisible wall preventing her from exiting. We later learn that David casts a spell on Emily rendering her unconscious and trapping her so he could use her blood in a spell that prolongs his life. The same was done to the women now on display as statues.
The four statues come to life due to unexplained mystical forces and tell immersive stories about the intricacies of being a black woman throughout South African history. Their stories highlight the primary theme of Herstory Museum: black women taking control of their historically poorly characterised narratives.
The fourth woman is played by Nolitha Radebe who gives a standout performance. She portrays the self-proclaimed “songbird” and struggling mother, Mariam Mazibuko. She gives an energetic and sympathetic performance which is only made more captivating by her comedic abilities.
There is also the soft-spoken freedom fighter, Lulama Groom (Nokuthula Mabuza), the animated Dimakatso (Bokang Mohlabeng), and energetic Brenda Fassie super-fan, Sis Q (Noni Nobatana).
The rest of the ensemble give impressive performances too, especially when they break out into cheerful and occasionally somber songs. Their vocal performances are beautiful and assist in bringing their characters to life. .
The accompanying violinist and drummer are also breath-taking and create the perfect atmosphere. Be it enhancing a joyful moment or developing suspense when Emily realises that she is trapped in the museum, they are a great addition to the production.
These performances however would not be what they are without the well-thought-out script. Mashiyi’s writing is humorous and engaging which makes the play fascinating for people who aren’t necessarily theatre buffs.
One of the primary goals of the play is to emphasise the idea of African women telling their own stories due to the lack of accurate representations this demographic has encountered in the post-colonial world. Mashiyi says the play is worth the watch: “if you are willing to finally embrace the stories of black women”.
Although the play attempts to give black women a voice, it also slightly suffers when it comes to providing a nuanced exploration of modern black women, specifically with Emily.
She is a privileged black girl who has fully assimilated into Eurocentric culture. While Mashiyi attempts to dive into the complexities of her identity, the script falls short in a sequence about Emily’s hair.
The four enchanted statues are unrelenting in their pursuit to help Emily fully accept her black womanhood, believing that her bobbed wig is a barrier. After she removes the wig, she is met with adoring looks and praises.
Though the idea of black women’s hair was often within the bounds of “the afro is good, the wig is bad”, so to speak, the global conversation has recently moved beyond that. Now, black women’s choices to appear in whatever form they wish are championed in the public sphere and popular culture, even if they adopt some Eurocentric aesthetics.
While this aspect of the script was slightly reductive, it does not take away from the overall production.
The lighting choices are particularly enjoyable as they add vivid colouring to the stage which cleverly changes when the statues are telling their stories and it depicts aspects of their personalities.
Herstory Museum showcases great examples of the kind of skill and talent that makes the theatre so exciting to enter. This is a well-rounded and affecting production that shows just how impressive a story can be when black women are agents in their own narratives.
Vuvu rating: 7/10
FEATURED IMAGE: The final poses of the stellar Herstory Museum cast. Photo: Rufaro Chiswo
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