Mamela Nyamza is not the It girl of the arts. The problem with being “It” is that “It” implies one is hot for the moment, that “It” has an expiry date.
By now, even people who aren’t that interested in the world of dance know Nyamza is far from an It girl; she’s a force to be reckoned with.
A few years ago, I remember sitting on the floor, struck by a flurry of emotions as patrons who were inside the tiny Wits University theatre made their exits sporadically.
We had just seen Nyamza perform the incredibly moving and predictably controversial production, Shift, about corrective rape. Nyamza used what looked ordinary on the surface – a girl who used tennis balls to play childhood township games a lot of us are so familiar with – to tell an even more sinister story that is unfortunately a sad truth for many SA women.
But by the end of it, reading between the lines, the contours of her body and the fact that she didn’t bow at the conclusion of the production and left it up to the audience to decide where Shift had ended, reminded me of why art is meant to challenge us to think (at the very least) and act.
She does that again in I Stand Corrected, a powerful collaboration with UK-born Nigerian playwright Mojisola Adebayo. As part of the Artscape Women’s Festival, this production was the first time Nyamza was finally able to perform in front of the people who have watched her from afar.
“This is my debut at the Artscape.” Her lips form a half-smile. “My work has travelled internationally, but people here at home [Cape Town] don’t know it. I wish they understood me as an artist, but it’s sad because people will always be like: ‘I’ve heard of Mamela, but I’ve never seen her.’”
They see her in top form, skilfully reinterpreting through her body the story of an openly lesbian Cape Town township girl who paid for her courage to be herself with her life.
When I ask Nyamza where and how the two worlds of artistic licence and real life meet, she says: “As artists, we go to that real world of ours, too.
“So, as Mamela, I know that my mother was attacked by a man and had that not happened, she would still be alive today.
“I bring all of that to I Stand Corrected. And as with any other work, I try to go into that situation as if it happened to me.”
A collaboration with text written by Adebayo and devised with Nyamza, I Stand Corrected is the third time this Standard Bank Young Artist winner has tackled corrective rape.
With this production, she feels as if she has taken her art to a new level where “Mamela can be literal, too”.
This award-winning artist who studied ballet has been known to swop the flowery, flowing nature of contemporary dance for a more interactive, prop-filled, understandable-to-the-average-Joe nature.
“I’ve watched a lot of dance.” she says. “Over the years I’ve seen quite a lot, but I’m tired of dance on stage. I’m tired of all of this,” she says as she flails her arms and scowls.
“My movement is dictated by the message I am trying to send,” she says.
“I use my body as an instrument, like one would use an instrument to write.
“My body tells that story without the use of the verbal. Without saying anything, you can see this girl was raped, that she was split open, that she is stuck.”
That visual story is the best thing about I Stand Corrected. While the writing is exquisitely witty – for instance, when we are asked to imagine a lesbian in the royal family, we’re told one would be “Dead as a Dodi” – it does overtell the story.
Audience members are not given a chance to stretch the imagination and interpret the tale for themselves. But that doesn’t take away the fact that it is a story that needs to be told.
Especially to the people who aren’t the most likely to go to town to watch a play.
“I’d love to bring I Stand Corrected to the communities,” Nyamza says, “and I’d also love for it to travel around the country because this is a South African issue. But for now, I know we will perform I Stand Corrected in England for three weeks.”
The great thing about not being an It girl is Nyamza will be around for a long time so she may still get to travel to communities with I Stand Corrected.