Asia McDonald portrays a series of characters in The Same Pain at the Soweto Theatre.
Asia McDonald portrays a series of characters in The Same Pain at the Soweto Theatre.

How do you tackle rape in a live performance, and what transformative impact does that hold?

The disturbingly real rape scene in writer-director Paul Grootboom’s Relativity, held up a mirror to misogyny and showed the ugliness of its violence.

Lara Foot’s heavily poignant and catatonically silent, Tshepang, reminds us never to forget the gruesome horror that befell the 9-month-old rape victim in 2001.

Egyptian playwright Sara Shaarawi, with her story Niqabi Ninja, is unapologetically angry as she responds to the mob sexual assaults on women at demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo, cleverly pitting that against the rise of female comic superheroes in popular culture.

With The Same Pain, a new play that premiers at the Soweto Theatre on February 7, director and playwright Carla Fonseca moves beyond her anger to devise confrontational protest theatre that tackles rape culture head on.

The work interrogates gender-based violence by showing its multiple hues — there isn’t one way to rape, just as there isn’t one type of victim, abuser or setting.

This is not new information and Fonseca isn’t interested in throwing statistics at her audience. Her objective is to raise awareness on deep-rooted societal traumas and systematic oppression, and open up the conversation.

“I was frustrated at the fact that conversations around gender-based violence and rape culture were not happening. I’d be labelled crazy sometimes among groups where I would bring the subject up and people would very clearly and very quickly dismiss it. I would get enraged that even intellectual groups that you hope are emotionally intelligent can’t discuss this. So we’re bringing the subject to the people,” Fonseca says.

She is coming into this from a very personal place. In devising the play with collaborator and actress Asia McDonald and author and multi-media journalist, Phumlani Pikoli as co-writer, Fonseca has distilled personal experiences to find healing.

“I believe in the power of healing through theatre. I love working with actors with stories to tell, embarking on a process of healing together, where we create safe and comfortable places to talk and create. Asia has had a lot of pain to process. She has said how she can breathe easier and talk about things a lot easier now as a result of having to release every day through rehearsal. What I’m discussing in this play is the reality of things, the possibility of a healing process and what needs to take place or change in our minds,” says Fonseca.  

The Same Pain is structured as a layered one woman show telling real stories of power dynamics, substance abuse, bias politics, corrupt legal systems and defencelessness. With a multi-media approach, it has a strong visual and aural supportive language.

Fonseca has roped in band mate Nthato Mokgata, aka Spoek Mathambo, as sound designer. The two are part of the Pan African electro band Batuk.

Aesthetically, her work takes on the qualities of avant garde theatre and installation-based performance art. She created Sent with US-based South African actress Phumzile Sitole, which got rave reviews locally and travelled to New York in October 2014.  

She is bringing her powerful Modjadji — The African Rain Queen, which she created with co-director Mandla Mbotwe, Mokgata and Iman Isaacs to Johannesburg in June 2019.

“I really like visceral theatre. I like to give the audience something that is sensorial and experiential. I try to create as many metaphors in my work as possible. I have always been attracted to avant grade practitioners like Robert Wilson, who has worked a lot with performance artist, Marina Abramovic, who I really appreciate. My aesthetics are influenced by them both,” Fonseca says.

Her thematic focus has been on SA’s historical and current societal traumas for nearly a decade and it has revealed to her that “SA’s historic injustices are a septic wound that hasn’t fully healed, but keeps on getting dressed and re-dressed”.

This reiterates a point Pumla Dineo Gqola raises in her book, Rape: A South African Nightmare, that the history of rape cannot be separated from the history of slavery, colonialism and race science.

In speaking of the portrayal and interrogation of sexual violence on stages, one can’t ignore the sexual violence that has taken place in performance or theatre spaces either. 

However, these plays — Relativity, Tshepang, Niqabi Ninja and The Same Pain — exist to show and remind us of the violent masculinities in our societies and to inspire inner strength, healing and survival among the violated and surviving.  

The Same Pain runs at the Soweto Theatre from February 7-10.