Review: Thembi Mtshali-Jones and Yael Farber Collaboration a Must-see

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“Thembikile Heavygale Mtshali,
Daughter of Aaron Manqoba and Margaret Buntu Mtshali,
Who was once too shy to even raise her hand in class,
Stood here tonight to tell her story.
And we must speak or it will eat us inside.
We must speak or our hearts will burst.”
Thembi Mtshali-Jones in A Woman in Waiting

The stories in which we find the deepest truth are the stories that emerge from personal experience. Written in collaboration with award-winning playwright and director Yael Farber (Mies Julie), A Woman in Waiting is a story that opens up the reality of one black woman’s life during the Apartheid years in South Africa. The story is deeply personal, all the more so for being presented by the person who lives to tell her own tale: the multi-talented and internationally acclaimed Thembi Mtshali-Jones (Cry Freedom, Ipi Ntombi). Masterfully narrated, Mtshali-Jones takes us with her through the ups and downs of her life from the moment of her birth, through her childhood and adulthood, into the present moment where she is sharing the space with us, the audience, and sharing moment after moment of her life with us as if gently handing us the individual petals of a flower.

In the spirit of African storytelling, an ancient art as old as human existence, Mtshali-Jones and Farber chose to tell this tale using only the simplest of props onstage. Accentuated by skillful lighting, the few props – a wooden box, a toilet, two dresses and clay dolls – become metaphors for the events that shaped Mtshali-Jones through her difficult but colourful past into the legend that she is today.

While being the story of one South African, it is also a story about South Africa. A Woman in Waiting is a glimpse into a much-neglected aspect of our collective history; the ripple effects of apartheid and how it affected (and still affects) the lives of black women in particular. That Mtshali-Jones’ story is but one story amongst thousands is underscored by the collective murmurs of agreement that whisper through the audience as she recollects a childhood in which she rarely saw her parents while they scratched a meagre living in the big city, and how she in turn took a job as a domestic worker raising the children of rich white families while her baby lay at home.

A central theme of the play is that of waiting. Director Yael Farber commented that after watching the painful stories of the apartheid years that emerged during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, she was in awe of the many African women waiting for old truths to unfold, waiting with zen-like patience. “I wanted to use waiting as a metaphor to describe the trajectory of the millions of lives that revolved around this idea,” she explains. “The lives of women of colour in South Africa are often constituted of many forms of waiting – waiting to see their children; waiting to get home at the end of the day; waiting to receive documents from the government so they could move in certain areas – these women have often displayed an incredible capacity for waiting.”

For a sobering and moving 70 minutes, we walk with Mtshali-Jones as she waits for Christmas to see her parents, as she waits to move to the city, as she waits to meet her child again, as she waits for better days and for the cycle to be broken – and through this patient game of waiting, we feel the extraordinary power of African matriarchs who walk through life one determined step at a time, sacrificing their lives for those of their children. The story of A Woman in Waiting is honest and inspirational, especially when we come to recognise how the raw talent of this particular woman finally lifted her out of domestic work and onto the world’s stages.

Mtshali-Jones has been gifted with an extraordinary voice and with it the ability to tell her extraordinary story and the story of a nation. As we walk through the museum that is her life, it should be hoped that the candle she holds up sparks the flame of more stories to be told through which some of the wounds of our collective South African consciousness can be healed. Still raking in awards and standing ovations, A Woman in Waiting has not lost any of its force since its opening show at The National Arts Festival in 1999. We are lucky to have it back on the Capetonian stage again. If you haven’t yet, catch it this time around – it’s absolutely worth the wait.

Marilu Snyders

A Woman in Waiting runs at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio 25 September to 15 October 2013.

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