As well as presenting Ngwabeni's own experiences of coming out and learning to embrace her sexuality, Kiss the Women touches upon the violence suffered by lesbians in the townships, including the increasing prevalence of a horrific crime known as ‘corrective' rape, where lesbians are raped to ‘cure’ them of their homosexuality. The play deals specifically with the brutal murder of Ngwabeni’s friend, Zoliswa Nkonyana, who was killed by a group of young men because she was gay.
We spoke to Kiss the Women's director and writer, Peter Hayes, and performer Pam Ngwabeni, via Skype before they travelled to the UK for Afrovibes.
Peter, what led you to write Kiss the Women?
Peter Hayes: I’m concerned with telling stories that aren’t being told. In South Africa, we have this extraordinary constitution on the one hand and then this reality on the street on the other. We have this new definition called 'corrective' rape where a group of straight men will target a lesbian – this happens in the black townships – to rape her to straighten her out. So that was the social climate and ultimately it was finding an actor who was brave enough and fierce enough to tell this story. My co-artistic director Jaqueline Dommisse had worked with Pam when she was training at college and that’s how we came to meet each other.
You’ve been praised for giving a voice to the black lesbian experience – how did you go about ensuring the play's authenticity?
PH: We did it as a workshop: a process that I’ve developed with personal narrative, shaping true stories into theatre, so what you end up within the text is some words that Pam spoke verbatim in the rehearsal room and some that have been very shaped by me, and some that I’ve gone forward and written.
Pam, what was your initial response to idea of doing a play about such challenging and personal subjects?
Pam Ngwabeni: At first I was kind of like, “okay, now I’m going to tell my story, everyone’s going to be listening to me telling my own stories”, but now I’m comfortable. I just go on stage and tell them my stories because someone has to tell the stories. If not, then who is going to be brave enough?
Has the process been painful?
PN: Yes, it was difficult, especially my mother’s story. She gave me a choice, which is not a choice at all: either not to be gay or get out of the house. Every day I have to live something that happened in 2005. I have to live that.
But you’ve had an enormous amount of positive feedback…
PN: Ya, I have. People have come to me and say [sic], “I’m also a lesbian, I’ve been in the closet for a couple of years”. Then some will tell me their stories. They finally feel like, okay, there's someone out there who feels the same way they feel.
PH: It’s really important for me that lesbians that see this play see their lives affirmed and celebrated. It’s really important for me that it’s not just the stories of rape and murder and attempted suicide and your mother throwing you out. Yes, that’s the reality, but within that reality safe spaces are created where women are in loving relationships. The reality’s not just all darkness and despair.
What do you hope to achieve with this plays in terms of political objectives?
PH: I’m realistic in the objectives I think. To really effect political change, the amount of lobbying and activism needed is greater than what we can do in a play. I think what theatre can do is create a very intimate exchange. Prejudice arises from ignorance and fear and when you’re sat in the theatre to hear an actor tell a true story – at some stage in that performance they will look you in the eye and it starts eroding the fear. That’s as much as I can hope for in a play, that we can attack the prejudices. You can’t hate somebody that you know.
Ncamisa! Kiss the Women will be playing at the Albany, Deptford, from 7 to 10 October, the Drum, Birmingham, on 12 and 13 October, and Contact Theatre, Manchester, from 19 to 23 October.