It’s a simple stage, blackboards propped around with a few words chalked on them – POLITICS, LUCIA – and some plain black chairs, the kind you might find in a community centre. Seven women enter separately, singing, and form a row on stage. Each one wears a different coloured top. Each one steps forward and introduces herself, most with hip-popping, finger-clicking bravado, as you might do when you join a workshop full of strangers and want to make an impression. Then over the next hour we get to hear their stories, interspersed with spine-tingling acapella song and joyous dance.
Mamela is a “verbatim play”, the cast mostly playing themselves, telling their own stories that emerged through participatory workshops among communities in South Africa, stories that “deserve to be told”. Reading this in the production programme made me feel a bit wary, my cynical self worried that this would be a piece more worthy than well-crafted, despite its awards for excellence and innovation. If I had carried on expecting a play in the conventional sense, I may have felt justified in my trepidation, but once the performance started I quickly shifted my expectations to ‘storytelling’ mode and proceeded to have a great time.
The company keeps it simple, sticking with the workshop as the scenario, each section of the action responding to a different topic prompt. Your parents? If you could go back in time? Your passions? At first the players are arranged in static, isolated patterns on the stage, speaking to the audience but not to each other. Over time we see them begin to interact, until they are forming tableaux, becoming the support cast in one another’s anecdotes, singing and dancing in unison as the stage shifts to the next topic. Each one has her own story, some heart-breaking, but the bigger story we’re watching is the formation of a group, and of friendships.
If I could change anything about the show, I would drop the sections about Politics, and Men and Boys. Nothing in the group discussion about politics had the riveting zing of their conversation about religion, as faith (or the denial of it) seemed much more relevant and immediate to them. Similarly, although the chat about men and boys was entertaining, nothing surprising was revealed. Both sections lacked a strong personal story as a focal point, and so drifted into vagueness and platitudes in comparison with other sections. In some ways it was reassuring to hear familiar sentiments and realise how similar our stories as women often are, even across continents. But I would also have liked a little more of the stories that made me aware of our cultural differences, like the importance of a vivid, evangelical Christianity or the realities of life with HIV.
But this is a small quibble. Overall it was impossible to watch this piece without feeling sympathy and goodwill towards all the performers, who ended as they began, standing in line like a rainbow of beautiful colours all refracted from one lovely light.