A Moment to Remember: Slindile Mthembu

We talk to playwright and director Slindile Mthembu about her most recent performance piece titled "Re-membering". In our conversation we talk about the challenges she faced while performing this piece, the intention and message she would like to convey as well as the struggles facing the theatre community in a world that is adapting digitally on the daily.

This week I had the opportunity to speak with 27 year old playwright and director Slindile Mthembu. As well as being a director and playwright  Mthembu is also a dramaturg, researcher, theatre-maker, and is the co-founder of Mabu Art Foundation

In 2015 Mthmebu completed a BACCALAUREUS TECHNOLOGIA: Musical Theatre at the Tshwane University of Technology (Arts Campus) and since then has amassed many more experiences through her work in theatre. In the professional realm she has earned the title of writer and director at the 2016 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, where she received  a Standard Bank Ovation Award for the production ‘Milked Voice’. In 2017 ‘Milked Voice’ was staged at Johannesburg Theatre Fringe and Soweto Theatre.

Later, in 2018 Mthembu wrote a play titled ‘Igama?’, this was written for a her masters production. The play “Igama?”, was then deconstructed and made into a bite-sized  3 minute performance piece that featured on The Centre for The Less Good Idea as part of their “A Considred 3 minutes” series. This version is titled “Re-membering” and is set with the intention to be a staging of memory of the lived experience of black women. Mthembu aims to communicate that the black women’s experience is not one that is linear but is filled with complexities, while simultaneously healing the body from the hurt that exists in a post-colonial era.

CN: Do you find that the black women’s experience is generally one of pain and rarely one of joy?

Mthembu: There definitely are lighter moments but it was important for me to tap into what my research paper was about and it is not possible to shy away from gender-based, sexual and racial discriminations that we experienced everyday. There is no pretty picture to it and it can be difficult to hear our voices in a homogenous structure that is the patriarchy. There have been plays that speak about the experience in a humorous way but it was important for me to maintain that these experiences are heavy and we can’t shy away from that. It’s important to give a voice to the voiceless.

CN: What do you hope to achieve from this performance & what is the message that you would like to communicate?

Mthembu: For me it’s a message of understanding that these bodies are suffering and these bodies need to be heard. That we need to find a way to shield and protect these bodies before we die out. A lot of it is inspired by pre-colonial movements of Sara Baartman’s body and how she was used as a gaze. I am also very inspired by the cross over, in terms of gender, race and class when I’m trying to bring awareness to the black women’s lived experience on stage. I’m trying to show you that; “Hey listen! We need to stop! Stop touching our bodies! Stop scrutinizing our bodies!”, so I’m trying to create a reaction through confrontation as well as trying to adapt the work into a film format.

CN: What is the symbolism behind using a door frame as a prop?

Mthembu: The door frame represents the oppressor, which is the white man but is also open to interpretation as being any kind of oppression that you may experience, that is what that door represents. When I was in the process of developing the play at Wits, I just kept on seeing a white door. In the play “Igama?”, the white door is rotated amongst five black women, they walk in and out of it and it represents their shared experience and shows that we’ve all gone through this and that is the symbolism of the door.

CN: Was it difficult to perform ‘Re-membering’?

Mthembu: The way that the centre works is that you come in for three days, we rehearsed for two days and we filmed it on the third day. The first two days were incredibly difficult, because it had been a while since I had performed but fortunately since I had been in a rehearsal environment and using my body in the performance, I was able to understand how to step in and use my body and my voice in the role.  The bigger challenge was tapping into the lived experience of sexual violation, the experience of having to go back into a memory, because I also have a memory of my body being invaded but, not being raped but an invasion of my body. It was fortunate that I was able to step into that role and free the younger girl within me with this piece.

CN: Does the performance aim to be relatable to the white women?

Mthembu: Yes. I’m not trying to exclude the white women’s lived experience, I’m also not trying to mute them. If you are able to see that experience through a black body and also as women we go through the same experience, regardless of what race we are. We are all troubled and we all need to be protected.  I will never exclude any women’s voice. I can only speak from a black woman’s perspective because I am black and I am woman and I am marginalized. Although, in my research paper I am much more radicalized, that it is for black women and that I speak for black women.

CN: Looking forward to the future, what do you hope to change and improve for the black women’s experience?

Mthembu: I would definitely like us to be free from these oppressions. To not be objectified and we’re able to be comfortable in our bodies and we’re not scared. We are able to just be and not be judged. To be able to exist in a community that is safe and is able to protect us. I would also love for women to fight together and for us to resist all these oppressions as one unit. I think it’s powerful when women all come together and it’s powerful when women support each other and that is when we are able to bulldoze the symbols of oppression, when we work together.

CN: Are you working on anything new?

Mthembu: I’m currently working on doing a screening for “Igama?” at the Bioscope at the the end of November.  I’m really trying to use the medium of film to bring people back into the theatre. The screening for me is very important to see what it can do and how we can create more awareness. At the same time I’m still trying to navigate through the researchers voice, where I’m trying to complete my MA paper.

CN: What are the challenges you face when trying to get into more film and TV?

Mthembu: The challenges are that those doors are so difficult to break down. Fortunately during the National Arts Festival, I worked on a dance documentary which was; Lesedi: The Rise of Lulu Mlangeni, and I was able to use the medium of theatre and the medium of dance and be able to adapt it into film with a team under the company which I co-founded which is Mabu Art Foundation. What we’re really trying to do is bridge the gap between film and TV and fuse all mediums together. It’s been difficult to get into a structured space, where people can trust you and believe that you can actually pull it off. I’ve really been trying to get into production companies where I can direct commercial work. It also takes some time and it requires you to not give up.

CN: Any final words for our readers?

Mthembu: With regards to theatre in the future, especially considering the current times that we’re living in, it is important for theatre to adapt. It’s important that theatre-makers are seen and are heard, because we are really creating incredible work. I’ve noticed that theres a void for the voices of theatre-makers. This is something I am trying to do myself, trying to adapt my voice through other mediums. What I’d like theatre to move into a digital space, although it is expensive but I would like for brands to value our voices and for them to know that we can be cool too. Theatre can shift mindsets too and we can influence societies to change. Look out for theatre and support theatre.

We can learn so much from all we’ve talked about with Slindile Mthembu, she speaks with such a passion and love for the work that she creates and the discipline that she exists in. It’s enjoyable to see not only a woman, but a black woman do so well and strive for more, not just for herself but for the theatre community as a whole.

Speaking with Slindile Mthembu brought a new sense of awareness to the challenges facing theatre-makers and I hope that it helps to inspire a moment of cognizance for the next time you want to go to the movies, why not instead go to the theatre.

Rae Mdeza

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