POETRY

#WeAreDyingHere: A virtual show confronting the war on women’s bodies

By Jabulile Dlamini-Qwesha 8 July 2020

#WeAreDyingHere (Image by Lungelo Msibi)

A meditation on what it feels like to be a woman living in South Africa today, the production #WeAreDyingHere puts the culture of misogyny into perspective through theatrical monologues and performance poetry.

After two spectacular performances in Cape Town and Johannesburg, the stage production #WeAreDyingHere is now streaming online and making waves with local as well as international audiences. Just last week, #WeAreDyingHere was listed under Best Live Theatre to Stream by Time Out New York, a site which usually reports on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. 

Although it’s now a virtual viewing, it is still a transcendent experience with high impact visual language and soundscapes. It’s a sublime response to the pervasiveness of rape culture and femicide that offers viewers from various lenses a crucial moment of pause.

The show’s producer and playwright, Siphokazi Jonas, collaborated with spoken word artist Hope Netshivhambe and vocalist Babalwa Makwetu to put together a mellifluous performance where every sound carries the weight of the subject matter. 

“We are soldiers in a war we did not choose.” 

“I wanted to use a vocalist who is also a storyteller and who would know how to interpret the poetry. Babalwa is an award-winning theatre composer and is well-known for her work with soundscapes. Hope brings an incredible vulnerability to her work which is rare; her poetry is gut-wrenching. Her calm demeanour is a perfect balance to my more passionate delivery,” says Jonas. 

These techniques intuitively touch on the idea of the value of each voice and articulation when speaking against gender-based violence. Representations that are further embodied by the characters speaking in different languages at various points in the production. The pervasiveness of abuse thrives on the silence of potential victims and survivors; whether it is due to not having the language to define the violence or the assumption that it happens in isolation, secrecy enables further victimisation and failures in accountability. Hence the language aspect of #WeAreDyingHere provides moments of vindication and thus an exhale for affected viewers.

The process of putting together words that resonate with each unique experience of gender-based violence is an intricate undertaking that requires intimate reflection. Jonas says that she and Netshivambe already had some existing work that they could pull and use, and then paid attention to gaps and where they wanted to go with the messaging. Makwetu would listen to the poetry and then write the music and melodies as they went along.

Besides the fact that Siphokazi Jonas and Hope Netshivhambe are professional poets, the complexity of metaphor in poetry allows for a layered approach to the topic. 

“The production is about finding and giving a language to articulate our lived experiences, and poetry offered us that language. Instead of being concerned with the overall plot of a traditional play, as director, I was more interested in the fragmentation of putting these different poems together – a fragmentation which is reflected in how we report stories on GBV,” says Jonas. 

Beyond the words, the set is a particularly striking element of the production. It appears to be a space near a battlefield; a depiction that reflects the narrative of the “war on women” as it relates to gender-based violence. Jonas says she found herself somewhere in-between the thoughts of a “war” and a “massacre” and the underlying theme that emerged was: “We are soldiers in a war we did not choose.” 

Siphokazi Jonas and Babalwa Makwetu in #WeAreDyingHere (Image by Dany Vambili)

She then spent time interviewing an active soldier to understand important aspects of battle and what it takes to win a war. 

“It is almost impossible to be safe.”

“He helped me come up with five strategies and those became formations that took the place of scenes within the performance. The set is envisioned as a kind of no-man’s-land where we, as three soldiers, take time away from the frontlines, and from the war on our bodies in order to debrief and share our experience. 

“But the space is still inundated by ongoing news on gender-based violence – with newspapers spread all over the floor from the entrance of the theatre. It is impossible to escape the violent environment in South Africa; it is almost impossible to be safe.”

Although the show highlights issues where little remedial action has been taken on a systemic level, the responses from individuals have been powerful. 

“We’ve received feedback from men who share how the show has given them insight into our lives and the small but numerous decisions we make daily to survive. And one of the most impactful things that has happened is a woman who will be starting an initiative for women in rural communities to share their experiences and to empower each other,” says Jonas.

They’ve also had a teacher stream the show for her Life Orientation class to discuss human rights, and would like schools, churches, businesses, and other institutions to take this on as well. 

Jonas says they would be ecstatic if the production could be picked up by a national broadcaster in order to reach a wider audience, as too many South Africans are left out of the experience when it’s limited to the digital space.

#WeAreDyingHere is currently being streamed until 13 July and will be streamed again later in the year; they will also be publishing the poems and music from the production. A tour is also on the cards once it is safe to do so. DM/ML

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