Complicit: the flawed art of blackness

A scene from Complicit, a production about challenging institutional culture in South Africa. Photo: Emily Stander/Cue

Complicit, directed by Nangamso Bomvana, comprises of six black girls, dressed in black, addressing black issues and seeking answers for the black community. It’s a revolutionary performance that stares misogyny in the eye. Red lights flash and set a bloody and moving atmosphere. 

“Hope in our suitcases: An entire generation’s promises”. 

This is a key line in the performance, which is contradicted by South Africa’s heavy baggage packed with xenophobia, illustrations of black love and its ugly part.

The African dream (yes, it remains a dream), sexuality, rape culture and the oppressive instructions women get during the traditional (family gathering) marriage ceremony are extra baggage which add to the play’s narrative. The universities’ anti-protesting stance, which comes in different “legal” form such as court interdicts, is yet another piece of baggage with a price to it that the performers tackle in unison.

The central theme that Bomvana’s crew of actresses confronts is: What measures does society take to ensure that women are also protected?

One of the scenes portrays how students go home during vacation – only for their parents to welcome them with accusations of taking part in illegitimate protests while “the other kids” in the village are graduating.

“iDiba elihle did not fight for this. Aniyazi icause yenu. You don’t know your history” (Madiba did not fight for this. You do not know your cause).

The performer’s voice expresses how it dawns upon one that the only form of history they know is Eurocentric and misogynistic. They further elaborate that the history that one is often taught is one of solving African problems with Western tools.

This is a history that remembers Hector Peterson and forgets Antoinette Sithole. This is a history that erases women and invalidates their presence in liberating the nation. But still, society contradicts black, fierce protest writer Audre Lorde and tells you that, “Education is a tool to dismantle the master’s house”….

“Imbi lendawo. Siyayisaba lendawo. Imbi lendawo. Thina, siyayisaba lendawo esikuyo”. A protest song voices out an uninviting, unwelcoming place which one is scared of. Imbi lendawo propels Complicit into a protest art physical performance and moves it to explore different issues such as sexuality.

It takes one to a place where the chapters of a young woman’s story finally come together. She cannot wait to tell her mother that she is finally comfortable in her skin. She is still human. She is still her mother’s daughter. She is still a woman, but a lesbian woman. The mother comes into conflict with this realisation that she has a lesbian daughter. She suddenly baptises her daughter in Luke Chapter 17, and calls on her ancestors to talk to her daughter, change her and make her “normal”. Here Bomvana illustrates how sexuality can be invalidated through religious practices.

Complicit further explains how women spend their whole life working from nine to five. “Life was not made for the black woman. But I cannot run away from myself. We live to make it”. The performers vocally express how women never make it up the corporate ladder without stumbling over big blocks that tarnish them forever. The meetings women have with their boss turn into “a penetration [they] did not ask for or want”. Their rapist swifts like a bird in the corridors. He remains free.

This physical art performance explores the flawed art that black love is. The combined narratives portray the sugar-coated struggles of marriage that mothers stand for because they have also stood in that heavy rain of emotions and survived fists from a man that they love. A baton of pain which is passed down from generation-to-generation, to keep the family ‘intact’ while compromising the black woman, is represented through speech in the play. A baton which sets an image of an accomplishment as a woman. “As the years’ pass, you forget who you are”.

The performers illustrate how a married daughter divulges in her mother about the ugly in her marriage. Her mother dismisses dismisses her suffering and asks, “What did you do to him?” She reminds her that love keeps no records of wrong like the Corinthians, while her daughter asserts her that: her husband keeps all her wrongs as a ball of coiling anger within him. And all at once, this young woman wishes her heart was not as big as it is to lock up all the heartbreak she wishes she could release.

The story moves to the trio of friends: one from the township and the other two representing the middle/upper class suburbans. This scene shows a young woman who tries to escape her daily realities and goes to her friends for a peace of mind. However, that is where she realises how her friends are “out of touch with reality”.

She becomes the outsider. She becomes the friend, who wrestles thoughts of her family being on the long RDP house list, while her friends move higher into the suburbs. She confronts their Twitter slay queen tendencies of reducing people’s reality into hashtags.

She points out how Twitter users often care little about the meaning of #queerlivesmatter. She shows how those who do not lack access to feminine sanitary products do not care about the township girl who has no sanitary pads. The unknown woman who committed suicide elokshini (township) adds little to their existence: she is a mere hashtag. “We are tragedies waiting to happen”.

Nkonjan’ emnyama (an isiXhosa song sung by amagqirha, traditional healers) echoes an ancestral calling infiltrating a young person’s body.  “Take me to the river to dance with my ancestors who have drowned”. The drum echoes with her young heartbeat. The sun comes up, the world turns and there is a moon on the other side. It spirals within the young black women on stage that:

 “My blackness has been a journey and a destination at the same time’. And “maybe it is better to have a home within ourselves”.

By Thandolwethu Gulwa