Maternal ancestors:Scenes from the award-winning play Womb of Fire — which is inspired by women’s personal stories — plays a role in redressing historical gender imbalances prevalent in South African theatre. Picture: SUPPLIED
Maternal ancestors:Scenes from the award-winning play Womb of Fire — which is inspired by women’s personal stories — plays a role in redressing historical gender imbalances prevalent in South African theatre. Picture: SUPPLIED

It all started when two women came together over a cup of chai in a Mumbai kitchen in 1999. The result was the launch of an organisation, The Mothertongue Project, and a magnificent play, Womb of Fire.

The recent Stellenbosch Woordfees awarded the play best actor (Rehane Abrahams), best director (Sara Matchett) and best play.

The play came to life when Abrahams persuaded Matchett, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, to direct the piece she was writing.

Back in SA a few years later — Abrahams was living in Indonesia — after a rewarding run of What the Water Gave Me in Cape Town, they had a choice: to continue and build their organisation or abandon it.

"Rehane and I chose to build The Mothertongue Project. The need for a women’s arts collective, one that focused on women creating and performing theatre inspired by women’s personal stories, became apparent in terms of the role it would play in redressing gender imbalances historically prevalent in South African theatre," Matchett says.

"The necessity to challenge the silencing and marginalisation of women’s voices in theatre was evident.

"The Mothertongue Project was officially formed in 2000."

Scenes from the award-winning play Womb of Fire. Picture: SUPPLIED
Scenes from the award-winning play Womb of Fire. Picture: SUPPLIED

In 2010 Abrahams — with her mother, Cass Abrahams, grieving the death of her own mother — developed an interest in her maternal ancestor, her grandmother’s grandmother.

"My mother writes in her most recent book how her mother finally admitted Khoekhoen (or ‘Hotnot’ as she said) ancestry as she was dying. It moved my mother and she expressed a strong desire to connect with her Kat Rivier ancestors and retrieve a long-denied and erased Khoekhoen connection," Abrahams says.

When she was hospitalised with time on her hands, Abrahams began writing and dreaming. "The time in hospital, delirious with pain medication, gave me some of the text used in Womb of Fire that had to do with blood and the stories carried by mitochondrial DNA passed from daughter to daughter.

"Of course, I told Sara about this and we talked about making a play that would pull me closer to the earth where I was born, through my motherline. I was growing tired of drifting untethered from South African soil."

Matchett says she spent a week at Kalakshetra Manipur in October 2012 as part of a PhD research visit to India. "My experience was a deeply transformative one on many levels."

Kalakshetra Manipur is a theatre company founded by Heisnam Kanhailal, husband of Ima Sabitri, who started as a child star of Manipuri Opera theatre in the 1950s but later devoted herself to experimental theatre best described as "a fusion of instinctive physical movements with hard-hitting political aesthetic".

"Living in residence with the couple and the company of young actors afforded me the opportunity to engage with them beyond the theatre practice," says Matchett. "I felt the sense of community they inculcate deeply informs their work. I was particularly struck by Ima’s sense of playfulness coupled with deep wisdom."

Womb of Fire, set in an episode of Indian epic The Mahabharata, interweaves personal narrative and contemporary realities with the lives of two women from the founding years of the Cape Colony.

Grote Katrijn (1681-1683) journeys across India to Batavia and then to Cape Town as the first female bandit slave; Zara (1648-1671) is a Khoekhoen servant violently punished posthumously by the Dutch East India Company for the crime of suicide. The play reaches across time to reassemble the dismembered women’s bodies, allowing them to speak.

Research for her master’s inspired Abrahams, especially the writers Zoe Wicomb and Pumla Dineo Gqola. "I encountered the stories of Grote Katrijn van Pulicat and Zara through the research of a remarkable man, Mansell Upham, who came to a rehearsal while he was visiting from Japan where he now lives; he gave us valuable insights and corrected misconceptions.

"He is also a descendant of Grote Katrijn and has conducted the most thorough research of her story.

"The story unravels the first years of the colony — our birth, our country’s Womb of Fire. The two characters were based on my mother’s two grandmothers; one a Khoe woman from the Kat Rivier, who was a difficult person apparently racist, vicious and sexy, even into old age; and Zara was written with my mother’s description of Mama Hendrika Jeggels in mind.

"My mother’s other granny was Catherine Prins who was half-Scottish, half-Tamil.

"She was sweet and dignified, she was the first certified midwife of colour on the Rand and she gave us the sweetness, the love and the tenacity of Grote Katrijn. Her journey also drew on my own experiences of India and Indonesia — Jakarta or Batavia in particular."

Language plays an important role in bringing the two historical figures back to life and is selected for each audience.

"I wanted to express something of the polyglot nature of the first years at the Cape with the different languages," says Abrahams. "I speak Indonesian, which we used for Katrijn’s time in Batavia, and baby words from Malayalam for India. For Zara, we use a smattering of Khoekhoegowab or Nama for words of deep significance.

"For the Woordfees run, we decided to try Afrikaans and asked Jason Jacobs to translate. It foregrounded different aspects and deepened the characterisation. I loved the richness of switching linguistic registers."

Matchett says the play is a "roar, not a lament".

• Womb of Fire is at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town from April 18 to May 5.

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