Vanessa Frost (left) and Tumi Morake in Tease!. Picture: BLOOM & STONE
Vanessa Frost (left) and Tumi Morake in Tease!. Picture: BLOOM & STONE

It’s a rare treat to experience leading stand-up comedian Tumi Morake in a theatre and she is more than happy to return to her performance roots in a new production of Tease!.

A Wits graduate in dramatic art, Morake’s stage homecoming was always inevitable — theatre taught her how to tell stories and honed her comedic bone.

She made her tentative return in 2014 with Greg Homann’s Oedipus @ Koö-Nú!, his National Arts Festival showcase as a Standard Bank Young Artist for theatre. It was a clever and risky move on Morake’s part, because productions in the festival main programme are easily remembered. She played the dual roles of a comical chorus and a majestic Theseus, revealing a layer to her acting skill.

It was important to return to theatre to pump up her performance muscle.

“I want to improve my storytelling in my comedy. I want to use my body more. I want to play more with accents on stage. And theatre allows me to do that,” she says.

She and actress Vanessa Frost had talked about collaborating and the seed for Tease! was planted when Frost called Morake and told her about a hair salon she had seen that sold sex toys. The story was crafted around that fact.

The production was first staged in 2016, packing houses at the National Arts Festival and subsequently at the Market Theatre. If you’re only encountering it now, you’re catching the performers in a better and different form.

“The script has not changed, but our energies are different. My kids were much younger when we first did the show; Vanessa was pregnant during the Market Theatre run and we were discovering ourselves in the process,” says Morake. “Now, a few years later, I feel like everything we talked about in Tease! has settled. I trust myself more as a performer and I’m trusting the story more,” she says.

The title hints at the light, funny and kinky you do get from the show, but the content also explores serious themes.

Tease! is being staged in an environment where sex talk is still taboo in black communities; where black girls are socialised to hide their curves and discouraged from exploring their sexual selves; where women’s bodies are a battleground, constantly policed, sometimes by women themselves; where the quickness with which a catcall escalates into violence is as dangerous as the casualness associated with rape.

The script for Tease!, written by Morake, Frost and director Jose Domingos, was not created in a vacuum. A lot of research went into its creation and it aims to be inclusive, celebrating women’s sexuality and reminding them to laugh with themselves and the men in their lives.

“Women’s sexuality is such a painful thing for a lot of women. It’s a site of embarrassment and so much repression. Usually when people talk about women’s sexuality, it’s always about sexual health and safety and hardly about the celebration and enjoyment of our sexuality. Our approach to this was that the comedy should be there to lighten the seriousness of the fact that a lot of women are not having fun in the bedroom like they should, because we think we’re not allowed to,” says Morake.   

The drama follows Eva and Neo, best friends and business partners in a suburban hair salon who reach crossroads in their personal lives: Eva is getting divorced and Neo is having intimacy issues with her husband. The two stumble into an adult toy shop one night, which sparks an idea.

The show’s structure allows Morake and Frost to morph seamlessly into multiple characters. Here Frost’s exceptional comic sensibility meets with Morake’s knack to get under the skin of her chosen roles. The switching up of characters happens so swiftly it could feel incoherent if you don’t follow.

The synergy between Morake and Frost makes for hilarious laugh-a-minute comedy with a lot of heart. The laughter and reciprocal energy from the audience added to the experience.

The substance of the story is consolidated in themes of friendship, relationships (romantic and existential) and finding oneself.

The only snag is that the play is 90 minutes long, when it could easily get its point across in 60.

However, it’s an enjoyable night out of palatable humour and a welcome reprieve from women’s daily political struggles. Here women are taking back their sexuality, and the revolution will not be publicised. It is live.

• Tease! is on at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until March 21.