“For those of us who have experienced trauma, we know that trauma will always be a part of us – but we also know that it doesn’t have to define us.”
This is the sentiment that most encapsulates Brutal Legacy, the play based on Tracy Going’s memoir of the same name. Going herself said these words after the play, responding to her own healing process and how writing her book and being involved in the creation of the play had assisted in her recovery.
The play itself, on at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square until 27 April and produced by Daphne Kuhn, is a agonizing look at the highly publicized assault of Going by her then boyfriend, the context and prior history of domestic violence in her life before that point, and the fallout and consequences of the incident. The play was adapted by Natasha Sutherland, who also stars as a modern day Tracy (Tracy One), narrating the events which we see played out through a past version of Tracy (Tracy Two), brought richly to life by Jessica Wolhuter. The rapport between these two actresses, and the chemistry they possess brings the immediacy of Tracy’s trauma vividly to the fore. Their carefully and minutely mirrored actions show the subtle ways that Tracy has learned to cope with her memories and feelings of insecurity. Charlie Bouguenon plays Tracy’s boyfriend (specifically unnamed so as to deny him even the smallest shred of empowerment and validation), who violently assaults her multiple times, and he oozes malicious intent with every dark glance and rage-filled fist clench, even when playing “nice,” and charming Tracy in the beginning of their relationship.
Brutal Legacy is directed by Lesedi Job, who shows her usual mastery of space to throw us into Tracy’s shattered world, careening from place to place as we too are made to feel deeply uneasy and unsafe regardless of the surroundings. We fear for Tracy even in the comfort of her home, even as she describes her post-assault ritual of consistently locking herself in, and shielding herself from any outside view. The presence of the assaulter is consistently felt, stalking the shadows, whispering from the darkness, and filling her nightmares as the “giant who can climb over [her] wall.” The interplay between Tracy One and Tracy Two was also a searing look at the power of regret and the torturous effect of wishing one could revise their own history. This effective device makes the play inherently personal even without the sadly widely shared experience of domestic violence. Job and choreographer Julia Burnham turn the little space of Tracy’s home into a rabbit’s warren of places to run around, over and through to expertly display the cat-and-mouse nature of a chase through a living room.
They are aided by Lungile Cindi’s magnificent set, which evokes motifs that are ever-present and haunting in the book, such as the demolished table and the smashed door. Job also alluded to the effect of making Tracy’s home an unstable and always slightly eerie and menacing environment, a note that holds true from the narrated encounters with her alcoholic and abusive father in her youth to the assault which occurs when she is in her own home as an adult. Cindi’s set was ably lit by Hlomohang Mothetho, who skillfully differentiates between Tracy One’s narrative spots and Tracy Two’s lived experience with pools of light allowing the assaulter to constantly stalk the shadows, “like a tiger about to pounce.”
The play climaxes in a vicious, visceral double assault, with Tracy privy to both: Tracy One’s narrating blurs between her own assault, and a particularly violent incident of her father brutalizing her mother that she bore witness to. As the barriers between the incidents erodes, so does Tracy One’s carefully maintained control, as we see her overwhelmed with grief and horror at what has been wrought upon her.
“We made a promise” says Tracy One to Tracy Two in defiance of the memory of her assault, and her resolution to never allow what had happened to her mother happen to her; “We were little” is Tracy Two’s somber response. This feeling of futility permeates the denouement of the play, as Charlie Bouguenon returns as the advocate in the criminal trial against the assaulter. We learn of his almost total exoneration; of how he was allowed to go almost scot-free; of the judge’s mockery of Tracy Going’s experience in his judgment; and of how she will remain the one who is punished for the assault, despite also being the victim.
“We know that trauma will always be a part of us – but we also know that it doesn’t have to define us.”
It is underscored through the performance that Tracy Going is not a victim, but a survivor (as noted by an audience member during the Q&A.) That she stood tall, and strong, and unbowed, and told her story for a greater purpose. As a wave of gender-based and domestic violence sweeps our nation, the timing of the content of this play could not be more apropos. As our society’s most vulnerable are left defenseless, this raw look at how even a protected, relatively more privileged person can be deserted by justice and the law reminds us of just how far we have to go to solve the problem. But with strong, valiant voices like Tracy Going, Natasha Sutherland, and Lesedi Job, the way ahead is lit, and the example has been set.
All we are implied to do is to follow it, and renounce and destroy the brutal legacies of all of our pasts.
Brutal Legacy is showing at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square from April 4-27.