Dispatches From Abroad: An Intimate One-Woman Play In Cape Town
Upon arriving in Cape Town for my internship abroad program, the other four graduate students and I went on a whirlwind of tours.
From Table Mountain to Robben Island, I saw Cape Town on tours by bus, foot and ferry. But my favorite, most memorable excursion was the visit to the Amy Biehl Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides afterschool programs to children in townships, informal settlements surrounding Cape Town.
In 1993, Amy Biehl was working in the townships helping to organize and register voters for the country’s historic first democratic election.
A day before she was to return to her home in California, the 26-year-old was stabbed to death during a violent mob attack in the Guguletu Township outside of Cape Town by four young men.
In response, her parents participated in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings and supported amnesty for the youths. The four men were granted amnesty and released from prison in 1998. Her parents then created the foundation in Guguletu, where two of the men who killed her now work. I was in awe of the compassion involved in creating this place.
After hearing the history and pain behind the foundation, I was left with more questions than before (South Africa tends to have this intriguing effect on me). I wondered: How did this murder happen? Who was involved? And of course, why? "Mother to Mother," a one-woman play by Freelance Productions put on at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in July answered these nagging questions for me.
Thembi Mtshali-Jones plays the mother of one of Biehl’s killers in a beautifully imagined conversation with the victim’s mother. The actress deftly carries the play, painting a picture for the audience with her sensitive descriptions and visceral reactions.
“Mother to Mother” begins with the Mtshali-Jones on what seems like an ordinary day. While cleaning her house in the early morning, she remarks with a touch of humor that the “one-size fits all shacks” that characterize townships do not expand once children are born.
She works as a domestic worker for a rich, white woman, taking care of someone else’s children instead of her own. The irony does not escape her, but working and providing is a matter of life and death for her and her children.
On the way home, she hears of a crime in Guguletu, but at this point, she is unconcerned.
“When has there ever not been trouble in Gugs?” she says on a crowded bus ride.
But once she hears that a white American woman was stabbed, her tone changes from slight worry to intense anxiety. She fears for her children, but also the police who tear her town apart looking for Biehl’s murderers.
This moving portrayal of a woman struggling to make sense of her own son’s actions begs the question of where responsibility lies when it comes to such despair, violence and anger in a South Africa divided by racial tension. The themes of redemption, forgiveness and compassion intertwine with the shared pain of two mothers to project a vision of hope and possibility.
This thoughtful, sensitive testimony helped me understand the sociopolitical climate of the time, but furthermore, created an emphathic theater experience for me. I felt this mother's frustration, devastation, and sadness. This intimate portrait led me to a complex understanding of a difficult part of South Africa's apartheid past.