‘Curl Up and Dye’ remains relevant in South Africa

The opening performance of Curl Up And Dye. Photo: Shraddha Patnala/Cue.

Things are not always black and white. They are politically grey, socially pink, and stereotypically cover the entire spectrum of the proverbial South African rainbow. In the troubled neighbourhood of Joubert Park in 1989 Johannesburg, business owners struggle against the government’s political ‘grey areas’ plan. The local hair salon depicted in Curl Up And Dye is the setting for a social power struggle.

Curl up And Dye, written by Sue Pam-Grant and directed this time round by Wynne Bredenkamp, delivers five strong performances from Mariscka Coetzee (Rolene), Ruth Plasket (Charmaine), Miselwa Ngamlana (Miriam), Sue Diepeveen (Mrs Dubois), and Sive Gubangxa (Dudu). Their performances offer the audience a powerful and undeniably uncomfortable social commentary about South African politics, feminism, social relationships and hierarchies, and men’s influence on these women’s stories.

Mariscka Coetzee (Rolene) battles to keep the personal out of the professional. Photo: Shraddha Patnala/Cue.

For the predominantly South African audience at this Festival, the production disturbs the comfortable and enduring farce of blaming the government for personal intolerance and acceptance of the own misconceptions about black people’s capacity to excel, their education, values, and even humanity during and after apartheid. Now that’s not to say that South African people need a new education in race relations, but that fact cannot hold true when Curl Up And Dye creates such discomfort and dares us to confront our prejudices – which, by the end, we do.

The simplicity and familiarity of the set orientate the audience towards a stereotypically feminine space and sets up the expectation of stereotypically feminine occupations and preoccupations. The women in the play each come into the salon with a range of stories and personal struggles that build up and bleed into each other’s stories. While at first the relationships between the women seems confusing and almost fake, the characters develop their individual angles of race, politics, class, education and professional relations as the play progresses.

Ruth Plasket (Charmaine) offers another unpopular opinion to Mrs Dubois. Photo: Shraddha Patnala/Cue.

What this play points to is that human beings are often too quick to judge another person by their present circumstances, and attempt to keep doing this to level up their social standing – especially in apartheid contexts where race and gender determined what one was expected to do professionally and personally. Grant’s play, fearfully relevant even today, challenges South Africa’s post-apartheid conditioning of what we expect from the different races in the country. For Ngamlana, who plays Miriam, this is not just a play but rather an avenue for young black South Africans to express their frustrations and will themselves to break free of the stereotypes portrayed. She told Cue in an interview that she believes Miriam’s role holds true for people who have experienced social, personal and financial prejudice from mostly white employers.

Curl Up and Dye is unreservedly ferocious and unrelentingly relevant as it tackles our lasting prejudices. Their first performance at the National Arts Festival blew the audience away – no pun intended – and I’m sure their upcoming ones will too.

Catch Curl Up And Dye at St Andrews Hall on 4 July at 15:00 and at 21:00, 5 July at 12:00, and 7 July at 22:00.

By Shraddha Patnala