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8th November 2012

We are not even citizens. We are a native ‘problem’

Jessie Cohen reviews ‘Mother to Mother’ at the Contact Theatre

Five Stars out of Five Stars

Rarely does theatre serve up a truly poignant experience in which a single actor grips the audience from start to finish and receives a standing ovation at the end. On 19 October one of AfroVibes’s seven touring productions, Mother to Mother, came to The Contact Theatre – the final stop in a long line of performances from Cape Town to Amsterdam and Cardiff, as well as showing in five major English cities before finishing the international tour  here in Manchester.

The play is set in 1993, a year before Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa which marked the end of the apartheid. It tells the true story of the killing of white American student Amy Biehl in the Gugulethu township of Cape Town in which whites were forbidden to enter. To add to the tragedy, Biehl was a supporter of the African fight for equality. InMother to Mother, South African actor Thembi Mtshali-Jones delivers a profound portrayal of the event through the imagined perspective of a mother of one of Biehl’s attackers. Projections of South African news reels puncture this intimate insight, re-attuning the media-induced perception of a ‘black and white’ ‘villain’ and ‘victim’. The play takes the form of a monologue in which the audience are swept along by the stream of consciousness of a Mother of a young man who becomes the Mother of a killer and who  is in many ways is the biggest victim of all.

Mother to Mother begins by reporting Biehl’s murder before going back in time to an ordinary day in the life of a single African mother during the apartheid. Her eldest son has just returned from a ritual circumcision at the age of sixteen, from which point he is considered a ‘man’. By focusing on the perspective of the Mother who feels estranged from her eldest son in the lead up to Biehl’s attack, the play explores two major themes: the violent manifestation of masculinity among African youth and the impact on African women who were left to pick up the pieces. Following Biehl’s death, Mtshali shows how the attacker’s Mother is abused from all angles: raided and terrorized by the South African police (while her son is nowhere to be seen) and her neighbours turn their backs on her, calling her the ‘mother of satan’.

The set is minimally dressed: there is a table, a pot, a knife and blanket, which effectively convey base-line living without sensationalizing a poverty-stricken situation which could have tipped audience sympathy into a form of pity. Instead of relying on fellow actors and an abundance of props, Mtshali draws on personal resources to carry the production: she sings and jokes in Xhosa, shouts in despair and cries (actual tears) in pain.

When asked after the show, “How do you maintain the emotion every time you perform?” Mtshali replied, “I always feel physically sick during the performance.” For Mtshali, the issues of the play lie close to home: born into apartheid South Africa in Durban, Mtshali got pregnant at young age, dropped out of school and worked as a domestic worker. But Mtshali is not interested in evoking pity from her white, western audience at Contact. She emphasizes the importance of the angle that the production takes: ‘It is important for me to tell the story from the perspective of a mother because it is the mothers who are left to pick up the pieces. This is a universal story which I’d hope would speak to mothers in similar situations like the mothers with sons involved in the fighting in Bermuda.’

At the centre of the play is a realignment of audience sensibilities when looking at the cause of the attack and at its impact. The horror of Biehl’s death is never lessoned, but the play offers a unique insight into the reasoning behind the twisted expression of manhood amongst African youth who were deemed powerless as the ‘inferior’ race. Biehl’s attack is held up as a symbol of the unfortunate ways in which power was wielded when treated like animals and denied the status of citizens. In a brief interview after the play, Mtshali expressed that ‘the rightful anger of black South African men was often channeled in the wrong ways by taking it out on their wives and children.’ Mother to Mother reminds us that hundreds of black South Africans were killed everyday without mention in the media in contrast to the media fixation on Biehl’s death. Similarly, Mtshali reminds us that countless Mothers were the brunt of apartheid oppression and while Mother to Mother does not explore issues of domestic violence, it presents the death of Amy Biehl as a tragic case of reckless opportunism and gives a broader understanding of the social context in which she was brutally attacked.

The contrasting voices of the Mother and the white voice of authority in the form of news reels constitute the most powerful element of the production as the Mother’s cries are set against the booming announcements of the press which are so far removed from her destitute reality, demonstrating how the voices of those at the coalface of social conflict and oppression are so often the ones that go unheard.

Mother to Mother ran on 19th October at the Contact Theatre as part of the Afrovibes Festival


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