Presented by the Market Theatre Johannesburg and touring the UK as part of an ‘Afrovibe Festival’, And the Girls in their Sunday Dresses is a 1993 adaption by eminent South African writer Zakes Mda of his own short story, first published in 1988.
And the Girls is a two hander played out between ‘the Woman’ (Lesogo Motsepe), and ‘the Lady’ (Hlengiwe Lushaba) who are queuing outside some sort of government facility in the hope of attaining a bag of subsidised rice. Experience of queuing systems has taught the Lady to bring a Chair, while the Woman has brought some food and as the wait to enter the facility extends into night and again into day, these two very different figures argue, swop life stories and share their resources. We learn that the Lady was once middle class and married but abandoned by her (white) husband has became a prostitute and as she ages is no longer able to compete with younger sex workers, including her own daughter. By contrast, the Woman has spent her life working as a ‘housemaid’ and is a single mother.
Mda’s writing is known to be influenced by European as well as African literature and a number of reviewers have compared this piece to Kafka because when the women are finally allowed into the facility and their goal appears to be tantalisingly within their grasp, they find themselves caught up in absurd and pointless bureaucracy; an exercise of power for its own sake. Far more reviewers describe it as a South African Waiting for Godot and there are certain parallels. Aside from the theme of ‘waiting’ there are aspects of And the Girls that brand it as an ‘allegory’ or ‘fable’ but this form was favoured by Brecht as well as Beckett and certainly in Princess Mhlongo’s production, this play seems closer to the former than the latter. The set for And the Girls is simply the Lady’s chair and a chain link fence but the costumes are specific and detailed and the characters’ behaviour is sometimes close to Brechtian ‘gestus’; in this case the symbolising of raced and gendered as well as classed social relations. The Lady is swaddled in a smart but too tight suit, her feet crammed into uncomfortable looking high heels and throughout the piece she obsessively piles on make-up to hide a complexion destroyed by skin lightening creams. The Woman carries her possessions in the sort of checked plastic laundry bag recognisable internationally as the luggage of the world’s urban poor and homeless, and she wears layers of shabby clothes including a blanket which she constantly ties and reties around her waist.
In an equally Brechtian fashion, sections of dialogue between these figures are framed and interrupted by direct address and by lively and often very funny interactions with the audience, some of which appear to be at least semi-improvised. In the case of the Lady, who is keen to do a bit of ‘business’ while she is waiting and is extremely blunt in advertising her charms, this interaction is acutely embarrassing for the male spectators she picks on, even while it delights the rest of us. Occasionally, the women break into song and short bursts of the dialogue are in Xhosa. For a British audience this latter may function as an ‘alienation device’ but from this perspective it also seems part of the growing sense of connection between the two women, which is at first personal but becomes political.
Initially the Lady looks down on the Woman by dint of her class and lack of education and the Woman disapproves of the Lady’s by dint of her profession. However, as time passes they share food, the Woman’s blanket and laughter over remembered adverts for the skin lightening creams; the Woman comforts the Lady when she is seized by fear and despair in the night; they discover that in both cases their impoverished situations are partly the result of relationships with white men marked by unequal power relations, and they reflect together on the fact that the working lives of the ‘girls’ in the government facility parading in their Sunday dresses are similarly affected by sexism and/or racism. In the end the Woman and the Lady choose to walk out of the facility together without the rice, and as performed by Motsepe and Lushaba this is an upbeat moment of liberating rebellion that allows for hope of change through solidarity.
This ending is a long way from that of the despair of Godot but where this comparison does strongly apply is in the representation of the two main characters as a classic comic ‘double act’, on the model that, for Beckett, was exemplified by early film duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The combination of allegorical form and reference to this ‘double act’ tradition allows the characters in And the Girls to appear as a comment on ‘race’, gender and class but without Motsepe and Lushaba as performers, necessarily being contained or constrained by the discourses that shape these categories.
Lushaba’s Lady follows the ‘Hardy’ pattern, initially physically and vocally dominating the space, she is loud, larger than life and bombastic but her pretensions to grandeur are constantly undercut by her situation and by the Woman’s pragmatism, to reveal vulnerability. Like ‘Laurel’ Motsepe’s Woman is squeaky voiced and gives the impression of being physically smaller and more timid but she is full of nervous energy and from the start is the braver and more outspoken in challenging the status quo. As is often the case when women appropriate the traditionally male double act (for example Victoria Wood and Julia Walters, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders on British television and Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw of Split Britches in live performance) there is something liberating in itself in witnessing two women skilfully and exuberantly ‘bouncing off’ each other and the audience. Lushaba and Motsepe’s performances are crucial to the appeal of a piece where perhaps, reflecting the context of its genesis, political commitment and a desire to achieve a broad address are privileged over coherence and subtlety of dramatic structure.
Yet while its performance under the blanket title of ‘Afrovibe’ seems to present it as a work relevant to ‘elsewhere’ in place as well as time, as a political allegory open to interpretation according to context, there are still many, many countries where it might take on new significance whether in relation to issues of gender and/or ‘race’ and/or class or other such ‘subaltern’ categorisations. This includes relatively highly affluent and privileged countries like Britain in this current period of economic crisis. From April to September 2012, the Trussell Trust only one of a number of charities currently operating a national network of ‘food banks’, supplied emergency food aid to 110,000 people (double the figure of the previous year) while people on benefits especially those on disability benefits, have found themselves the object of absurd bureaucratic processes that would be funny if they were not so unjust. It has also been widely acknowledged in this country that wave after wave of government reforms and cutbacks are affecting women in particular, even those still parading in their Sunday dresses.