Seen on February 20, 2016 @ Puku Festival, Grahamstown
The year is 1993. The stage is set with the ordinary props of a township house: a table, peanutbutter jar, jam, a loaf of white bread, tea mugs and a chair on the left. In the middle a rolled up blanket. Right a box with a paraffine lamp.
A newsreader’s voice announces the killing of an American white student in Gugulethu by a violent mob. Two big screens support the media coverage that went international. A sobering lament of a sorrowful mother follows, sharing the grief of the other mother who lost her child, trying to convene why her son lost his humaneness and why such an abomination could happen.
But Ubuntu demands that reconciliation is made and peace restored. So this bereaved mother writes to the other that is bereaved.
So begins the play Mother to Mother adapted by Thembi Mtshali-Jones from the book by Sindiwe Magona.
Amy Biehl was an American student that came to South Africa to help the people she loved in their journey towards the first democratic elections in 1994. Just before she was headed back to the US to be reunited with her family and friends after a year abroad she offered to bring some of her friends home to the Gugulethu township 20km from her University to extend the already said goodbyes for just a little longer.
When a crowd of young people, intoxicated with anger, propelled by slogans invented by people who did not know the struggles firsthand, because there were no teachers and books in the schools spotted the white lady in the car, they turned to stoning and 4 young men stabbed Amy Biehl merciless to death.
As for many others the story became a international headliner outlining and condemning the blatant senselessness of the violence. Oh the irony of a young woman that came to help but was murdered by the very people she loved, learned their dances and language and ate their food. Most of us would go back to our ordinary lives when the story is pushed aside by other headlines screaming for attention. A lot of sympathy and support is given to the family of the victim, but who is worried about the grief of the murderer’s mother?
Only when celebrated writer Sindiwe Magona who was working for the UN in New York was back for 6 weeks in 1994 to witness for herself the miracle, she heard about the four boys on trial for the murder of Amy Biehl on August 25, 1993. It was then that she realized that Mxoleli, one of the perpetrators was her neighbour’s son from the time she lived in Gugulethu. That downing urged her to write Mother to Mother, a fictional letter from the mother of the perpetrator to the mother of the victim.
Thembi Mtshali-Jones adaption of the story for theatre is a tour de force. Helped by some ordinary props and two screens that give a glimpse in her life, the life of her country and the life of Amy Biehl, the whole story is brought as a long monologue that explodes with the tenderness, shame, agony, grace, love and everything else a mother feels towards her child.
As a face is lit by the gentle burning of a paraffine lamp. You can already taste the sorrow in her “ I am a mother, with a mother’s heart. God you know my heart,” a goosebump lament.
In her plea for understanding how it is to raise a child in a context of violence, crime and poverty Mandisa takes us through the rituals of an ordinary day in Gugulethu, both vividly portrayed by the humourous wake up call to Mandisa’s children and the morning rush of Amy Biehl on screen. Although Mandisa leaves clear instructions for her children she has no account of what will stick, leaving before dawn and coming home after sunset because she has to look after the children of Mrs Nelson, a white woman, in order to feed her children.
By the late afternoon all innocense has gone and Mrs. Nelson (the difference between their lives is poignant) drives Mandisa frantically to a bus stations as there is trouble in Gugulethu (when has there not been?). On that uncomfortable bus ride whilst worry and fear are all around she prays for the safety of her children, fervently hoping that they would be out of danger. She recalls how her own mother was scurrying food together the day they were told to leave their home in Blouvlei and bulldozers and police surrounded the place. Against their will resettled in Gugulethu together with many others without any wish to be there.
The worry intensifies in the next scene when Mxolisi has not come home yet and rumours thicken. Thembi’s embodied performance of a mother in the struggle is phenomenal. She admitted later in the post performance talk that it did not require lots of research to enliven the anguish, sorrow and fear as she knew lot of mothers personally whose sons were in similar trouble.
Even now the perpetrators would not be able to answer the big why question. Forced removals, brutal police force, inequality, the understanding of Apartheid as “good neigbhourliness”, the state having money to send medicines for TB but not for teachers and books to the townships and all the other structural violence done over a period of 300 years provoke vehemently violent reactions from an inticed mob that chants “one citizin, one bullet.”
Battered and bloodied the family stands up after the police came looking for Mxolisi. After which they return to their next thing, for the family laying down things will never be the same.
Filled with shame and anger about what her son has done Mandisa has to bear all the reproaches from others in the township as if she made him do it.
Her heart breaks when her son reluctantly confesses that he was the one who stabbed her. Can a mother (fore)see that a son is able to kill another being? Mxolisi’s name means “he who brings peace” But did he not know that they would crucify us for killing a white person?
“One boy. Lost. Hopelessly lost.
One girl, for away from home.
The enactment of the deep, dark private yearnings of a subjugated race. The consummation of inevitable senseless catastrophe. I do not pretend to know why your daughter died, died in the manner in which she did. Died when time and place and hands were all in perfect congruence, cruel congruent of time, place and agent.
For that is what he had become at a time when he killed your daughter. My son was only an agent, executing the long simmering dark desires of his race. Burning hatred for the oppressor possessed his being. It saw through his eyes, walked with his feet and wielded the knife that tore mercilessly into her flesh. The resentment of 300 years plugged his ears, deaf to her pitiful entreaties.
My son, the blind but sharpened arrow of the wrath of his race.
Your daugther, the sacrifice of hers. Blindly chosen. Flung towards her sad fate by fortune’s cruellest sling.
But for the change of a day, the difference of one sun’s rise, she would be alive today.
My son, perhaps not a muderer.
Perhaps, not yet.”
And the stunning piece retuhttps://wordpress.com/post/cultureshock.org.za/11029rns to the original lament of a mother’s heart and the cup that is too bitter to swallow.
Mother to Mother speaks from deep to deep and although set in the nineties, is frightingly relevant with the myth of redemptive violence still kicking and screaming, unresolved anger kindled by slogans of which the outcome can not be estimated, and questions of black lives matter (the shrill contrast of media covering the death of one white girl and the nameless children in townships that are never mentioned. A celebration of the love a mother has for her child and that of others and a tribute to the resilience of women that sacrifice while men walk out of the homes. And the ever deeping questions of what do we do now?
Picture by Eric Miller