GREC FESTIVAL DE BARCELONA 2021
Written by: Fikry El Azzouzi
Director: Junior Mthombeni
Musical installation & direction: Cesar Janssens
teatre lliure montjuïc
It always bears repeating that history has a curious way of treating women impacting how they are remembered and honoured. From Eve and Mary Magdalene to Evita and Yoko Ono history casts a large shadow over their lives, their achievements and most importantly their legacy. History likes to create narratives that overexpose any flaws or controversies that women may have ensuring and within any discussion about these women those 'supposed flaws' are always front and centre. For Black Women, historically and within contemporary society, there continues to be an effort to diminish the impact they have politically, socially and culturally.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a political activist who was known affectionally as the ‘Mother of South Africa’ though by the time of her death in 2018 the controversies that surrounded her latter political years became the main focus. Madikizela-Mandela was a fighter and a political powerhouse in her own right who formed a genuine connection with the people of South African and it is this connection that is at the very heart of Dear Winnie.
For a lot of people there is an iconic image of Winnie & Nelson Mandela leaving prison in 1990 with their fists up in the air. This is perhaps one of the only photographs that most people will remember of Winnie Mandela. It was an image that was front-page around the world and people would cut it out and frame it, this moment in history was important and everybody understood why. Madikizela-Mandela wasn’t just a wife who stood by her husband's side she was a fighter, uniter and a political operative that knew how salient it was to bring Black South Africans together.
Dear Winnie director Junior Mthombeni, whose father was a former ANC resistance fighter and close confidant of Winnie Mandela, gives us a personal story that places a salient reflective spotlight on Madikizela-Mandela. This personal approach is bold and unflinching offering audiences an essential theatrical experience that tends to make one angry and frustrated a times but also provides you with a renewed sense of respect and hope.
The exposed stage comes to life when Denise Jannah (an elderly Madikizela-Mandela) appears from the wings, slightly hunched over clutching her walking stick. She makes her way across to the other side of the stage with a pace that implies the exhaustion of a woman who has carried (and continues to carry) a deep burden. There is a serenity that comes over you when you see Jannah who, every now and then, looks out into the audience as she makes her way back to her starting point. Once back she lifts up a plastic tube that is connected to a giant metal horn and she blows. Once, twice and then within seconds the several women who hear her call begin to appear.
With this siren call is Madikizela-Mandela calls for women to come together, to unite and to continue the fight. The sound the horn makes is chilling and urgent. Jannah’s face retains a staunchness throughout the production that is engaging and somewhat heartbreaking. In every look she gives and with every movement she makes one feels a connection to this pain within the text that can only come from knowledge and experience.
The rest of the company, Gloria Boateng, Andie Dushime, Tutu Puoane, Ntjam Rosie, Jade Wheeler, Mahina Ngandu, Saar Niragire De Groof, and Ntando Cele, un-complicate the very complicated life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The energy of the company is electrifying moving with ease from difficult discussions about lives, legacy, history and memory without flinching.
This energy is important as there are few moments of humour or levity within Dear Winnie but at the same time this does not make it the usual melodramatic production. Jr.cE.sA.r present a much more rounded history of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela which is respectful and allows the audience to begin to understand the difficult road she traversed.
By not having a chronological narrative of Dear Winnie frees itself to tell its story in this unique way allowing the audience to begin to understand the issues, troubles and histories that South African's have had to contend with. As in one particular scene (we assume just post-apartheid) two of the women discuss the ‘lies that are told’ one being that there was ‘no slavery’. As the rest of the company covert drunkenly on the floor Tutu Puoane further explains that this sight that we are seeing is what they want, they want to ‘divide and conquer us'.
This is powerful line as division within African nations has been a tool used for centuries by Colonisers like Belgium, France, Spain, England and illustrates why Madikizela-Mandela has had her reputation impugned by both sides. The negative focus on Madikizela-Mandela has caused lasting damage as new generations either don’t know about this history or are divided by it. Puoane further explains that generations have not been educated or taught about their history and the struggle their ancestors faced.
Another significant moment in Dear Winnie comes when a white Afrikaner is brought onto the stage and the 8 women encircle him. The audience doesn’t really understand who he is but I could not help but think that he bore a striking resemblance to the last white President of South Africa F. W. de Klerk. In this context the 8 Black Women have taken control by stripping him of his dignity as he stands there near-naked, silent and ashamed. As we continue to assume that some part of this man on stage is de Klerk it reminded me of a statement that de Klerk made in 2020 on SABC saying:
"...the idea that apartheid was a crime against humanity was and remains an agitprop project initiated by the Soviets and their ANC/SACP allies to stigmatise white South Africans by associating them with genuine crimes against humanity.”
"At no time does Dear Winnie feel familiar every second one watches this performance one is witnessing something unique and urgent."
Puoane says another of the big lies is that there was “no genocide” and as she underlines the many issues facing South Africans and the diaspora we get to understand why this is so powerful. In 2020 a former President on SABC making such a statement can only be because so much has been done to downplay, ignore, or simply erase this history.
Whilst Madikizela-Mandela reputation is 'complicated' or 'controversial' less focus or issues arise from de Klerk who continues to have a comfortable post-Presidency life.
By the next time the horns are blown the second time this situation has changed as Jannah is no longer alone she is joined by all the women who take their place by the horns ready to, as a united front, put out another call to their brethren. This symbolic act shows the power that these women have in coming together, telling and sharing their stories and continuing Madikizela-Mandela legacy by owning this legacy and not being afraid or ashamed to take pride in her life and work.
Fikry El Azzouzi, Junior Mthombeni and Cesar Janssens Jr.cE.sA.r are a trio of theatre-makers who are pushing the boundaries of theatre taking it into a completely different realm. At no time does Dear Winnie feel familiar every second one watches this performance one is witnessing something unique and urgent.
Dear Winnie's political message is powerful and will leave audiences reflective afterwards and at times it hurts to witness as this damage continues to affect generations of South Africans.