Expectant, written, designed and directed by Penelope Youngleson and starring Rebecca Makin-Taylor at The Market’s Barney Simon theatre until February 2, is the product of a young Cape Town company, Rust Collective. DIANE DE BEER spoke to the two women …
Expectant is a contem- porary coming-of-age story told against the backdrop of a 400-year colonial history of young, white, English-speaking South Africans and how their identity revolves and dissolves around what it means to be “from this country”.
That’s the formal line, but it’s also pretty much how Penelope Youngleson talks about her creation.
“I did my Master’s degree on the post-apartheid identity of English-speaking white women in South Africa,” she explains.
What prompted that research was a personal experience while researching a play for Cape Town’s Infecting the City festival.
They were interviewing volunteers who responded after the horrific xenophobia attacks a few years back by getting down and dirty in a tent town.
“I spoke to many middle-aged white women and while their volunteering was sincere, there was also this sense of loss.”
Many had been active against apartheid. But in the new South Africa they were lost and almost without a sense of purpose, she felt. The discomfort she felt about this observation led to Expectant, which flowed from the research.
“I like dealing with the margins of society,” says the writer about her subject matter.
That’s also where the name of her company, Rust Co-Operative, (with fellow Masters graduate, Philip Rademeyer) derives from.
“It’s about wear and tear,” she says, “corrosion of the skin”.
These also seep from Expectant, which she describes as a wordy play, but listening to the two women, it will be wise and witty and have people talking.
“Philip and I are verbose writers,” she admits, with Rademeyer’s much-acclaimed The View also coming to The Market in June. She obviously doesn’t have a problem with words or language even though that plays a huge part in the play.
“We have 11 languages in this country, and I speak the one linked to colonialism.”
She and actress Rebecca Makin-Taylor know they are working in a niche market, but are not willing to compromise. For Makin-Taylor, who has been travelling with this work for two years from Cape Town to Grahamstown to Amsterdam, it is her first professional work since graduating, which has been a blessing.
“I don’t usually write with someone in mind,” says Youngleson, but she knew she needed an actor who could handle both the technical and language demands. She knew Makin-Taylor’s ability and hoped she would jump on board.
Both women – and they believe most South Africans – have issues with identity and this is what they’re grappling with.
“My dad is British and my mom Namibian,” says Makin-Taylor who, after many travels around the world with her family, returned to South Africa where she was raised speaking English.
“We perform whiteness,” says an always-provocative Youngleson, who was thrilled to be invited by artistic director James Ngcobo to participate in both Amsterdam’s Afrovibes as well as this season at The Market. It’s hallowed ground for this young artist.
“My mom worked for Napac as a costume designer and maker,” she says. Theatre is in her blood and being at the iconic Market is like “coming home”.
They agree that our best line of defence and understanding is discussion. That’s what they know this play brings about on many different levels.
“I have never had the kind of conversation with the lighting technician that happened here during rehearsals,” says the director.
She’s delighted though because that’s what they’re hoping, that the topics will connect.
“We have such stereotypes in this country, among everyone.
“We don’t want to be ashamed of our bloodlines,” says Youngleson.
This is a young generation speaking. She was seven when the new democracy emerged, and these are the South Africans who find themselves in a new land with a language they don’t always grasp.
“There’s an invisibility of whiteness,” she notes. And she’s speaking especially from the English point of view.
Underlining her point she says that when thinking, for example, of Afrikaners and food, melktert and bobotie might quickly come to mind. Ask about the English and it’s problematic.
“We’re like chameleons,” she explains. “We move into different spaces” never quite finding home.
Both women have access to British passports, yet their hearts are African.
“I refuse to get one,” says Youngleson. “We want to get to a place of healing” and for that they know history has to be acknowledged to get past it.
“Expectant is a broad overview,” says Makin-Taylor, who steps on stage with Youngleson’s thoughts on her mind – and then speaks them.
“I’m a voice artist and most interested in the way you use sound and breath to articulate a vocal point of view. Words don’t communicate enough.”
Already on to the next project in her head, Youngleson is thrilled to come from a place where we have so much to say.
“Stories are splitting our skins,” she says eloquently. But they’re also tweaking Expectant as they move from theatre to theatre, “as we’re growing up!”
Expectant is a 2013 National Arts Festival Standard Bank Ovation award winner.