Advocacy Theatre

No safe space for women

WARRIORS at rest. From left: Modipadi Mokgohloa, Boitshepo Maile, Phindiwe Qakoshe, Kgaogelo Makgoba and Reabetswe Gaentswe, in Whistleblower at the Hilton Arts Festival. Photograph supplied.

SPORT IS ONE of South Africa’s religions. It’s also been a cute metaphorical way of dealing with other concerns of a political ilk, in popular culture. Whistleblowers, created by the cast and directed by Rob Murray and Quintijn Relouw, takes things much deeper: it’s a scary, relevant and confrontational play that is important, but not for the faint of heart. “Cute” falls out of any adjectival litany possible to describe this hockey-resonant work which performs at the Hilton Arts Festival on Sunday September 25, at 12:30pm in the Memorial Hall.

As you enter the Memorial Hall, two things strike you: The smell of wintergreen – Deep Heat – which pervades this windowless space oppressively. And the tight fit of the bleachers. These two factors make the experience of watching the work immediately threatening: you are enclosed; the air is thick. You will not be able to get out quickly, if you need to.

With this thought bouncing through your sensibilities, the work begins with a shrill piercing whistle blown by a white man who towers over the cast, at full blast. The space of the Memorial Hall, with seated audience members stacked several rows deep is not big enough for the sound of this very violent piece. The shrieks and bellows of the cast, the banging of hockey sticks against the floor, the anger and outrage in the work, all contribute to it assaulting the audience; your pulse starts racing before anyone has said a thing.

Having said that, and when the noise of the production parts to reveal the cast harmonising, you forgive everything. These five young women performers collaborate like goddesses. But this is not a godly play, by any manner of means. It’s a tale by sentient and furious young women speaking of cut-throat hockey, which becomes a metaphor and a container for a diatribe about gender-based violence in South Africa.

And as the work grows on you and several ideas are tossed hither and yon, from deeply sinister but choreographically accurate interpretation of the 1934 Abe Lyman song, Keep Young and Beautiful (if you want to be loved), to the directly threatening reality of a white male referee (Mike Wiblin) in appallingly revealing shorts, to the horrifying observation that ‘no’ has become South African women’s national anthem, the unpleasant nature of the theatre environment itself is vindicated, but still fits into a discursive place in this work.

These girls speak in hopscotch dialect about the problems they encounter with their large sticks and short skirts. They voice voiceless fears about dancing with men in bars, and they have written on their hockey sticks the names of young women who this country has let down. The Karabos and Uyinenes, the Bontles and Tshepangs, the Irenes and Sarahs, Aviwes and Amandas and the Thiwes and Hannahs, to name only those whose violent deaths reached national headlines. The backs of their shirts have numbers indicating the percentages of rape victims, of unreported cases, of men who get off scot-free.

Whistleblowers is an unabashed piece of advocacy theatre that articulates different levels of fear. Evocative of works such as Peter van Heerden’s Six Minutes of 2006 or Sello Pesa’s 2018 piece Bag Beatings, it’s a powerful and complicated, yet supremely direct piece, in which even the theatre doesn’t feel like a safe space for the telling and the hearing of these multiple and multiplying stories of damage inflicted.  

Whistleblowers is directed by Rob Murray and Quintijn Relouw. It is created and performed by Reabetswe Gaentswe, Boitshepo Maile, Kgaogelo Makgoba, Modipadi Mokgohloa and Phindiwe Qakoshe and features a guest appearance by Mike Wiblin. It is on at the Hilton Arts Festival tomorrow, Sunday September 25, at the Memorial Hall.

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