She stands with a smile of beatitude on her face as she sips her masala tea in tandem with the audience. She stands amid a circle of lit candles amongst a veil of aroma, from burning imphemphe and incense. And as she stands, she grasps at and holds your eyes and your heart as she unwinds a tale of beauty wrapped in horror wrapped in contemporary realities of the Coloured people of Cape Town. This is the nub of What the Water Gave Me, an astonishingly lovely theatre experience which never allows its beauty to become empty or shallow, but touches you to the core.
With stories wrapped into stories, and magnificently performed by Cherae Halley, the work is a carefully honed symmetrical piece which touches on a tale of three sisters with enough whimsy, magic and twists to evoke the Arabian Nights; betrayal by a monster; a massive centipede made of heat that eats human beings; and the dark world of child molestation under the cover of religious fundamentalism. It is couched in contemporary realities but embodies the gritty magic you find in Salman Rushdie’s work.
Now Halley is a young girl; now her elderly father; now a storyteller who evokes Mali in Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories; now a bold explorer of the Cape Flats; now a little girl being shamelessly caressed by her teacher. She makes you laugh as she navigates between outrageously beautiful language stitching together political thought with street smarts. She makes you cry as she speaks of the commonplace of rape and violence, but also as she touches in word and gesture on ineffable beauty in its simplest and most direct of forms.
A remarkable piece which is about transcendence and peace as much as it is about fierceness and urban corruption, What the Water Gave Me gives you the spicy sweetness of masala tea and the courage to face tomorrow. You emerge from it refreshed, if not a little tearful: it’s like an important religious experience.
What the Water Gave Me is written by Rehane Abrahams, directed by Jade Bowers and performed by Cherae Halley. Part of the Wits So Solo Festival, it performs at the Wits Downstairs Theatre on October 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 18 and 19 and carries a PG10 age restriction.