“The Fat Black Women Sing” is brilliant

I might be one of the last people to see this play/musical in its run at the Market Theatre, due to a range of life issues, but I sure am glad that I did. It is on an extended run until March 29, 2009 due to popular demand. I can see why, and if I manage to, I will see it again this week.

[Warning: Please note that this is not a review, because regular readers know I have that weird love/hate relationship with reviews. It is a series of reflections on my most recent obsession. Most reviews I have seen have spent more time telling you how fabulous Napo Masheane is, which she is, than on the actual play. One misses the boat completely and thinks that women only conversations are the terrain of victimhood.]

Napo Masheane’s play is billed as an adaptation of Grace Nichols’ _The Fat Black Woman’s Poems_. I don’t quite agree. I love, love, love Grace Nichols’ work. Napo Masheane may just be the most exciting playwright working in South Africa today. Ms Masheane is a magician with words, and she has that very enviable talent of weaving magic across layers of language. Most of us do our best writing in one language, and maybe write well in another one or two. Not Ms Masheane. Even in her Feela Sistah days she would deliver exquisite poetry in English and elegant seSotho/seTswana.

Masheane’s play is clearly in conversation with Nichols, and ideologically both pieces are in the same conceptual world. Masheane’s play, however, works very differently stylistically and this is not just because of the different genres adopted by the two Black women writing.

Starring Nomathamsanqa Baleka, Sheila Katende, Tumelo Moloi, Bomsa Buthelezi and Simphiwe Zungu, the play is a journey into the worlds of Black women’s diversity. The acting is phenomenal as these women take us deep into the fraught business of beauty, sex, relationships, abuse, pleasure, language and self-esteem. The four “fat” and one “thin” woman banter, allowing us see the various ways in which beauty is elusive. The fat women are harassed for being women and for being fat black women in the streets of South Africa as they mind their business. The thin woman is shunned at school because boys consider her too skinny. But these are not victims who suffer and then tell tales of woe to a patient audience. Rather, these are performers in a double sense, making us aware of the very many layers that exist in how Black women are talked about in various narratives.

The bulk of the play is in isiXhosa/seSotho/seTswana with occasional isiZulu and some English. It is not an English play. The friend I watched it with speaks isiSwati and English but enjoyed the play sufficiently, even though I only translated some of the seSotho/seTswana dialogue. Language is a very important aspect of the play too. Masheane uses language to do more than cover all the basics and bring exciting contemporary content to our languages, as crucial a project as this is. She does this well too. However, language is a character in the play itself. There are things, names, textures of this play that simply cannot be captured in the standard English we speak. There are character types and forms of familiar strangeness that would make no sense in English. Yes, the play can be translated. But my friend and I comcurred that it would have to be into some African American dialect or Westindian creole. But then it would not be about South Africa.

There are things about relationship that are negotiated through language, so that women’s exchanges are not romanticised. The Xhosa character, for example, has some wit that resonated and reminded me of a specific type of sophisticated sister, not a single hair out of place, has her life set as she seems to want it, who every now and again reminds you, as did the character, that yena uliqabakazi lakuQumbu. And there is a hint at some tension that complicates sisterhood when she doesn’t quite “pronounce” things properly.

You know the historic rumour about how Xhosa people don’t pronounce English and other African language names properly. Well, it is flirted with here, but also cleverly undermined and questioned in the dialogue. This is just one of the many, many ways in which the language is layered and recognition is key to the play. There are turns of phrase that take you back to some place you haven’t been to in a while. And you find yourself wanting to join in the conversation.

I am not quite a “fat black woman”, most of the time. But I was once a fat Black girl and as I try to lose the excess pregnancy weight, I have thought of myself as a “fat black woman” at times. As I watched the play, there were multiple moments of recognition that are not premised on beng a fat black woman necessarily. How many of us do not know the discomfort that comes from your inner thighs rubbing against each other painfully? Or the fertile ground that is the anticipation or arrival of the first period. And here, I did wonder whether Ms Napo had actually used my story as I listened to one of the women tell of the bizzare interpretation of the first period. I tell it often in friend’s homes when the conversation turns in that direction, and I know I have told it in Ms Mash’s presence before. I’ve also shared it with Lebo Mashile and audience in the L’atitude episode on menstruation. Masheane is more than welcome to my story and well edited and used too. You can go and watch the play and wonder which story is mine. If you are a friend of mine, you’ll probably recognise it.

Zoe Wicomb says you can’t trust writers with anything because you might see yourself in her work. Makhosazana Xaba reminds us that we are not so special that we have original experiences. Whatever we think is ours has happened to someone else. So, maybe ‘my story’ is not just mine alone.

And this is part of the utter beauty and joy that comes from watching this play. Even the stories that were not strictly my direct lived experiences are mine. It is one of the few times I have watched a beautiful piece of art and felt completely seen, and at home. I loved this play so much I can’t stop thinking about it.

I liked it so much that if I can get a script out of Ms Masheane, I want to write a longer piece on the play.

There are a few other people who wrote about why they loved this play, and how it was about them too. In a beautifully written review, Chisanga Kabinga said the songs were a soundtrack to her life. Jabulile Ngwenya writes a fun, if somewhat journalisty take, on the play. There is nothing wrong with journalisty writing. And award winning reviewer, Chris Thurman offers his take here.

As I left with my friend, I could not have been more grateful to the friend who watched my baby that evening so I could take this wonderful piece of art in. I left feeling like I’d been hanging out with a group of crazy friends.

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Posted on 26 March 2009, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi, your blog website is quite impressive. High pagerank and all. There are definitely much to learn from you. Will stop by later.

  2. This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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