Domonique Bennets
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Between 26 and 29 September, drama students and the Transformation Office organised a theatre festival for Anti-Discrimination Week. The festival consisted of 9 plays in the Forum theatre style, offering audiences the opportunity to alter the narrative by making directorial changes in the play. The festival’s goal was to encourage the audience to be active participants of society by noticing moments of oppression and speaking up to change the outcome and bring about change.
In each production, key moments stood out that could be labeled as oppressive. The role of the audience was to highlight those moments and offer advise on what the characters could have done differently in that situation. As active spectators, the audience was invited onto stage with the cast to reenact the oppressive moment and change the story’s narrative.
Each performance was terrifyingly familiar, these oppressive moments were actions and statements that people often say instinctively. Witnessing the ramifications of these oppressive moments drilled the impact of standing up to make positive change.
Pawn, #NdodaMust, and Trigger Warning all focused on themes relating to sex, consent, and communication in
both romantic and platonic relationships. Pawn centered around the idea that consent remains necessary in long-term relationships and raised important questions about what can be seen as oppressive behaviour and what is considered “consent.” Linking to these themes, #NdodaMust highlighted the problematic patriarchal views that certain men continue to have, believing they have an unfettered right to sex. This performance focused on the problematic pressure placed on relationships to be sexual and the importance of continuously discussing one’s expectations in a relationship with your partner.
In contrast to these performances, Trigger Warning focused less on romantic relationships and more on the conversations that friend groups engage in. Trigger Warning was uncomfortable to watch as it was gut-wrenching and explicit. The crude insensitivity used to speak about sexual encounters triggered the character’s multiple past sexual traumas. This highlighted the importance of treating sensitive topics like sex respectfully and honestly.. Each performance emphasised the grey areas in how society discusses these topics and the level of sensitivity with which they should be addressed. The audience addressed the oppressive moments by advising actions like better communication and creating spaces for sensitivity and honesty. The performances made the audience question how oppression appears in different spaces and how easily these moments arise in everyday life.
The festival focused on topics more difficult-to-digest, such as rape and racism in “What do you say?” , “What’s in your Pants?” .“What do you say?” delved into the specific feelings of oppression experienced by each racial group in the cultural and racial diversity that South Africa embodies. The performance not only touched on racism but also cultural oppression and colourism. The aim was to unsettle the audience as they witnessed their own realities in the actors’ actions and statements. Each oppressive moment was rooted in racial stereotypes, forcing the audience to examine their thoughts and actions as these stereotypes have become blindly normative, making them
dangerously painful.
What’s in your Pants?” told the story of a rape victim, a man who had been raped by a woman. This inversion of the traditional rape narrative sparked intense discussion in the audience, with controversial remarks reflecting the double standards society has in circumstances when men are the victims of rape, abuse, or violence. Despite the performance making it clear as to who the victim in the narrative was, the audience managed to bring each comment back to victimising the woman. The audience couldn’t grasp possibility of a man being innocent. They dug out any oppressive action his character committed and redirect blame toward him for the rape. This performance was incredibly provocative and stirred strong emotions. It emphasised a significant point: all survivors of sexual assault, regardless of gender, should be treated as individuals who have suffered an injustice, rather than being confined into stereotypes based on their gender. This principle also applied to the perpetrators.
These two performances were undeniably heavy to witness, and the discussions were filled with discomfort. However, the goal of producing impactful solutions was achieved. The overall consensus was that such moments need to be handled objectively rather than with hasty emotions and every victim deserves the space to have their story heard.
As constructive as the above performances were, “Concealed” and “Just Don’t Say It! “were not as impactful as they could have been. “Concealed” told the story of a university student who had been emotionally neglected by her parents, projecting these emotional instabilities during interactions with her friends. The performance highlighted the negative ways she dealt with her trauma and how necessary it is to reach out for help. Concealed lacked a strong dialogue resulting in the audience lacking concrete solutions to the victim’s oppression. There was nothing concrete to work with when thinking about overcoming an oppressive force. This was partly due to the misconception that oppression is fixed in a minority being othered and excluded. However, the director played more loosely with the idea that oppression can come from level grounded spaces like the home, and even be rooted within a person’s own consciousness, the performance could have made groundbreaking statements regarding mental health and the
oppressive nature mental illness embodies.
The message conveyance in Just Don’t Say It! was outstanding. The performance focused on the oppressive nature of religious and cultural attempts to ‘fix’ homosexuality. The performance revolved around the confusion of a gay student that felt targeted for his sexuality. It was potent and heartbreaking. The audience was left feeling struck with
how these ideas of ‘reconstructing’ queer individuals are still drilled into societal spaces. As thought-provoking as the
narrative was, it lacked oppressive moments that allows for audience intervention. The performance focused on recreating stereotypical struggles that the queer community face, like religious homophobia, instead of zooming into the identity crisis of a character plagued by his conflicting intersectionality as a Christian, Xhosa gay man. It did not work well as a Forum theatre piece and did not effectively call the audience into action to break oppressive cycles in the queer community. These performances treaded more on the lines of entertainment, not critical pieces of art with the ability to change the narrative. As the curtain closed on Friday night bringing an end to this thought-provoking festival, every audience member left with something concrete to take out into society. Entertainment allows one to escape into a universe less jumbled than our own. Yet, as an art, this form of theatre gave the audience the tools
desperately needed to unjumble the knot of oppression noosed around society. It all begins by standing up, acknowledging oppression, and sensitively changing the narrative.