As theatre makers and teachers, the work1 we make often depicts a situation that has occurred in society. We grapple with story, then plot, usually with a beginning, middle and end, moving circumstances, or condition, to the role of context, from which, story, emerges. It is not common in theatre making to place condition in the foreground of a work, where arguably, we should. We seldom depict blackness as a condition: a mode of being or existing. Which is a worthy project as representation matters and is still necessary. Nomcebisi Moyikwa’s Qash Qash (2017) is a work in which Moyikwa — who in this instance is both theatre maker and performer— sensitively begins to articulate black womanhood as a condition. A condition is something one is subject to, so the work viscerally enacts what it is that black women over generations have been subjected to.
Qash Qash (2017) eloquently presents black women as being collective in how we negotiate our way through the world. We are presented as a network that is not limited to being domestic, either in scale or in its concerns: so this work is far from being a “kitchen table” drama. At the start of the performance, Moyikwa asks that race and gender be prioritized in the audience seating arrangement. First, black women are asked to find seats, then, black males are asked to seat themselves, and then other folk are asked to stand, cast in the piece as a secondary (standing) audience. The politics informing the work are quickly established. Before the on stage performance begins, the black women audience members are asked to each hold a saucer with a teacup on it, thus also forming part of the work.
On stage we first encounter Moyikwa in what appears to be a personal setting, her bedroom. The misty atmosphere and dim lighting suggests she is in a liminal state, either sleeping or dreaming. Watching the dreamer on stage the audience hears her thoughts and fears broadcast into the room, this anchors Moyikwa as she moves, and we, the audience, focus and try to breathe calmly, while witnessing the fine balance as Moyikwa, who seems only partly conscious, walks along a ledge: the edge of the bed.
Cups and saucers in hand we, the black women audience members, ground her dream state, acting as those who are awake while she sleeps; as small reflective glimpses or fellow travellers on this journey. Moyikwa makes it off the bed, but still appears to be in a liminal space. She seems to walk through her fears and fantasies, both having equal strength, as forces at play on her mind and the world on stage.
We are now holding teacups, as our mothers, sisters and grandmothers do, while we relate our lived experiences to them. This gesture and suggestion of tea drinking echoes how black women observe and softly offer support to each other in moments of struggle and through similarities and differences, in a manner that only black women have and will come to know.
Moyikwa journeys on and allows her audience to acknowledge parts of their own inner lives through her journeying. Set against her success in articulating a state of vulnerability, our thoughts and emotions empathise with and then recognise her complex interplay of confusion, fantasy, fear, humour and song as our own too. We know we have been there. With the cups in hand, we now remember in our own lives the moments of needing to confide in other black women. Moyikwa’s and our thoughts, fears, fantasies, and doubts become silenced by the live gospel choir that suddenly forms part of the performance on stage.
While the teacups, music and other women serve as a palette centring the work, the gospel choir, dramatic and surprising, is a vital element of the work. The choir enters the stage only once her vulnerability has been established, they enter suddenly, singing black spiritual hymns with vigour, raising our spirits, giving us hope and quenching our rising anxiety over the outcome of her journey. Their sound-scape consists of singing and clapping, vibrant, like faith - spiritual belief - and breathing personified. They are the only other bodies we see on stage, before they exit, quickly. In this performance, Moyikwa eloquently articulates a particular aspect of subjective black womanhood as spanning across generations, as collective in identity, and as determined by those who make up her audience. Her political perspective is announced early in the work through her prioritising of black women and actively including them in the performance in an agentic role. This serves to remind one that black womanhood sometimes needs a networked holding space in order to be sustained. While folks who are non black women continue to have the agency to subject lack women to various stresses, they- for a change- can be positioned at the edge of stage and our care or concern.
This work sits in the sweet spot of enabling the audience to identify with both the narrative and the textual honesty of its depiction of the social position of black women.
This interview considers Moyikwa’s approach to performance making and questions the theories that underpin her work in order to make a broad enquiry into the strategies and processes that informed her choices in the making of the performance Qash-Qash: One mirror image of black womanhood.
Linda Makgabutlane: Please explain the narrative that Qash-Qash explores and what your intention was in making the work.
Nomcebisi Moyikwa: In Qash-Qash everything follows from the principle that the black subject is not to be reduced to a simple symptomatic—resisting, reactionary—subject, but rather that we hear in her what is “unreal”, calling attention to modes of black articulacy previously overlooked. I was proposing that, in order to stage an utterance (not an explanation or analysis); we include thought of the black subject in her primary language (not the language of transformation, recovery, rediscovery, or freedom). What was proposed, then, was a series of portraits that offer the reader a discursive site: the site of me speaking within and through myself.
This reading attends to the enjoyment, relations, pleasure, fantasy, absence, dispossessions, traumas, anxieties, expectations, expenditure, silence, magic, attachments, and negotiations attached to the making of “new” forms of personhood that are formed in journeying to find narratives that move beyond responding and reacting to colonial and apartheid narratives. Qash-Qash, known as the game of wonder and described in a physical way, is that moment when one begins snapping one’s fingers when he/she is trying to explain that which they know and feel, but cannot remember or cannot explain in verbal language. It is that which is already felt, but which, however, remains nameless and formless. It also speaks of that which is not attainable, not explainable, cannot be stolen, cannot be repossessed, that which was left for those who were stripped naked. It remains mysterious to those for whom it was protected and reserved. Its existence can only be confirmed by the body that is hosting it and it can only speak through the body that shelters it.
“We remain on the road searching for what is, in most cases, already within us and for what is us”, said Mandla Mbothwe (2014) in Alude Mahali’s paper titled A Museum of Bottled Sentiments: The ‘beautiful pain syndrome’ in twenty first century Black South African theatre making. This particular expression alludes to what I felt and still feel every day in my attempts to find a self-definition that moves beyond responding and reacting to colonial and apartheid narratives. It speaks of my body’s gesture caught in action and not contemplated in repose—the body of athletes, unprepared orators, statues—what in the straining body can be immobilized. I struggle in a kind of lunatic sport, I spend myself. Qash- Qash is myself at work; making, “worlding”.
LM: I enjoyed watching the work as it felt close to my experiences of being guided by other black females of older generations, like my mom and grandmother. I was reminded of how I both draw on them and differ from them, and how parts of their influence inform me in varying degrees and have lead me to my own (different) ways. What socio-political condition informed the piece?
NM: What I was attempting to do with Qash-Qash was to imagine what it means to be human. Being human, in this context, signals not a noun but a verb.
Being human is a praxis of humanness that does not dwell on the static empiricism of the un-fittest and the downtrodden and situate the most marginalized within the incarcerated colonial categorization of oppression; being human as praxis is, to borrow from Maturana and Varela, “the realization of the living” (Wynter, 2015:8).
LM: Yes you are quite correct—the socio-political condition can be easily equated with the human condition. What informed your choices in the set, props and materials you used in the performance? What shifted from the conception phase to what we saw on stage and why or how?
NM: I never know why I choose my props. As a theatre maker I always navigate towards sets and props that have the potential of making language and worlds. For example, a kettle for me has that—it boils, it hisses, it sweats, spits heat that forms a fog which then gets swallowed by the coldness of a room. That’s one world.
Another world is the world of the familiar where we recognise the kettle for its function(s). Boiling water to make tea maybe? That’s another world.
I also thought about the relationship that this object has accumulated with the person who put it on. What does it mean to put it on? What does it mean to boil water? What possibilities this language we get from “ukwenza” (doing) has. Can we possibly think of words as worlds? We however need to enter language as we do worlds and think of the possibility of detaching them from their historical and conceptual meanings. This is a process of considering, not only the end of the historical, social and political meanings of language, but also the meaning of meaning itself. This is an invitation to “attend to words and things beyond what is ordained by their immediate occasion and the most impelling necessities they address or appear to address” (Sekyi-Otu, 2003:7).
I borrow the phrase “farthest meaning” from the “The Return” chapter of Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons. The quest for meaning is depicted as the journeying mind’s movement through three circles of understanding: the closer meaning, the closest meaning and the farthest meaning (Armah 1973:149). The journey predicts a continuous return to each of these points—located in time and non-time—for a revision of understanding. Language then is read as an on-going process that only exists as “languaging”; not as isolated items of behaviour (Maturana & Valera, 1992:210). Languaging is a process in which you can turn language into an object that you own—you possess. It becomes then an object, with a grammar and vocabulary that you have and regulate.
LM: I’d like to make reference to other performance art forms, specifically jazz, as to me, what most forms of performance have in common is that they attempt to move people. So, I see little sense in excluding music as a reference. In Qash Qash you included a church choir in the performance, so I’m going to assume we are both at ease including music or musicians when discussing the performance and your practice. Jazz musicians, Terrace Martin (2017) and Robert Glasper (2017), who were recently part of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, say that being able to move people informs how they do what they do. What single obsession from your personal biography were you finding necessary to interrogate with this specific work?
NM: The necessity for Qash-Qash is to be found in the following consideration: that the black subject’s dis- course is today one of extreme displacement. This discourse is spoken, perhaps, by thousands of subjects, but warranted by less; it is completely abandoned by the surrounding languages: ignored, disparaged, or decided by them, severed not only from authority, but also from the mechanisms of authority. Once a discourse is thus driven by its own momentum into the backwater of the “unreal”, exiled from all the gregariousness, it has no recourse but to be/become the site, however thin, of a confirmation. It is a site/s of confirmation. That confirmation is, in short, the subject of Qash-Qash.
LM: We live in and relate to our Self and others in relation to space, so, as a lecturer who teaches undergraduate students. How do you approach making black students feel both recognised and human in your rehearsal and teaching spaces?
NM: I teach at the University of KwaZulu Natal. I am teaching black students. That is the gift that my ancestors gave me this year. I do not want to refer back to my teaching days at UCKAR) because I am still too fragile from how my black femaleness was used in that university. I recognise your question, but I choose to not answer it. This is to say that I choose breathing a little lighter just for once. I teach students who are like me now and I choose to focus on that because where I am now my breathing is not interrupted.
LM: No. I understand we also face the tensions of being black at the University of Cape Town, I do my best to remain optimistic, but I stay away from the word “transformation” because it gets spoken of more than it can be seen to occur. So using the term at times just gives a false sense of action—Frantz Fanon (2008: 8) describes even the small act of speaking as the condition of man existing for the other. In this instance, to be human can be seen as being for the other. Fanon goes on to describe two dimensions of the black man: one where he is among black folk and another when he is amongst the white man. Fanon describes colonial subjugation as the cause of this division of the self; however, he goes on to state that he is more interested in changing the world than in knowing it. How has being in the academy for an extended period of time—a place where access to or mastering of the English language can make white supremacy (as one logic) seem most at home—influenced your being and your work? More importantly how do you see performance as beginning to address making change in the world?
NM: I think we need to start seeing performance as a way of knowing—as an epistemology. As a process of “worlding”—a process which takes on concepts, bodies, objects, languages as sites that occupy worlds within them. Then maybe we can start thinking about not putting into theatre/performance the burden and responsibility of changing the world/making changes in the world. That maybe we recognize the other world(s)—no matter how temporal they are—that are being “worlded” by performance.
LM: The audience was part of the piece in varying degrees—black females then black male audience members and then other races. I understand performance art as an experimental art form that comes into being either through an interactive or a direct relationship with the audience. What were your aims when considering the role of the audience, the narrative of the piece and the merger of these two in space?
NM: The audience were for me what Puwar refers to as space invaders:
There is a connection between bodies and space, which is built, repeated and contested over time. While all can, in theory, enter, it is certain types of bodies that are tacitly designated as being the “natural” occupants of specific positions. Some bodies are deemed as having the right to belong, while others are marked out as trespassers, who are, in accordance with how both spaces and bodies are imagined (politically, historically and conceptually), circumscribed as being “out of place” or displaced (2004:8).
I started the work recognizing and possibly accepting that being black, being woman, means that I will always be the body “out of place”. Because it is certain to me that feeling displaced does not only occur when one is in close proximity to whiteness and to patriarchy. It is also in the fact that our ontological reasoning is prearranged by structures of whiteness and patriarchy or is an effect of these structures. It might be that in the post/transitioning South Africa, “we occupy the tenuous position of being both insiders and outsiders, but to a certain degree, we are ‘space invaders’” (Puwar: 2004: 10). We are outsiders, we are out of place, we are displaced. However, in Qash-Qash the place of the outsider was occupied by the audience members. For once I felt like “ndikwam” (I am in my own space) and that I was not invading, and I also made an exception of reserving seats for black women that I had invited myself. Abanye mabazibone bazohlala phi (the others can sort themselves out). I did not have time to think about them.
LM: Warone Seane (personal communication, 2018 March 14), a classmate and friend in theatre, recently asked me who my favourite black South African female theatre practitioner or manager is. She is one of mine and has been for a long time, and I’ve found that I delight in the act of recognising more and more black females in theatre. I think it’s also that theatre is one of those arts that allows for and usually calls for collaboration. Do you have a favourite black female South African or African theatre practitioner or manager? And if not the work of an African female, whose work are you currently most interested in? Then secondly, what peaks your interest in their work?
NM: I have a white one; Meg Stuart, because she questions and realizes living and being alive. She is intrigued by breath; holding; kissing; intimacy; love and and and...
Nomcebisi Moyikwa, born in Grahamstown (South Africa), is a feminist scholar choreographer, writer in practice, mother and a teaching-artist. She began dancing and involved in making of theatre at an early age in Grahamstown (South Africa). Nomcebisi is also part of the Rhodes Drama Department part-time stuff. She is the drama 1 movement co-ordinator, a Somatics (second year course) teacher, postgraduate movement training teacher and in 2016 was a Physical Theatre 3 teacher. She has also taken workshops focussing on physical theatre and choreography at UCKAR, at Wits and for National Arts Schools Festival. She is also an Arts Manager and Administrator for First Physical Theatre Company. She is now currently working towards becoming a black academic, non-raced and gendered artist/choreographer/performer, critical teacher and an outstanding mother. Her latest work, Qash-Qash premiered in Cape Town in August 2017 as part of ICA 3rd Space Symposium on Decolonization.
Linda Makgabutlane, raised in Johannesburg, is a performer, teacher and theatre maker. She obtained a Bachelor of Architectural Studies degree from the University of Cape Town. Prior to completing her B.Tech Drama Degree at Tshwane University of Technology, B.A Honours (Drama) and M.A in Theatre and Performance (theatre making) at the University of Cape Town. Professionally, she has worked on projects with South African filmmakers, visual artists, Art facilitators and as a theatre lecturer. Her current area of interest within performance research is in postcolonial cities and somatic performance practices.
1 While Moyikwa has reworked the performance over time, the commentary here relates to her 2017 performance at the University of Cape Town’s Little Theatre. Although this particular performance was situated as a work in progress, I found its premise to be conceptually concise.
Homi K. Bhabha, “Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition” in Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press, London, 2008.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press, London, 2008.
Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin. 2017. “Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper talk Pharrell, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Evolution of Jazz.”
You Tube. Accessed 11.03.2020. https://www.you-tube.com/watch?v=gmNqvF3vFiM
Achille Mbembe, Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive, transcription of talk series, Wits University, South Africa, 2015.
Ngu˜g˜ı wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind. The Politics of Language in African Literature. Zimbabwe Publishing House, Harare, 1986.
References Nomcebisi Moyikwa
Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons, East African Publishing house, Nairobi, 1973.
Alude Mahali, A Museum of Bottled Sentiments: The ‘beautiful pain syndrome’ in twenty-first century Black South African theatre making, Doctoral dissertation, University of Cape Town, 2014. (Maturana & Valera, 1992
Nirmal Puwar, Space invaders: Race, gender and bodies out of place. Berg, New York, 2004.
Ato Sekyi-Otu, “Fanon and the Possibility of Post-Colonial Critical Imagination” in Nigel C. Gibson ed., Living Fanon—Global Perspectives, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2011.
Sylvia Wynter, On Being Human as Praxes”, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2015.