We sat down with the three creative minds behind the Auto & general Theatre on the Square’s production of Tracy Going’s Brutal Legacy; Natasha Sutherland, the writer and lead actress, Lesedi Job, the director, and Daphne Kuhn, the producer at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square. We talked about the adaptation process, what drew them to the story, and some of their motivations in storytelling. Part 2 of a 2 Part interview.
Daphne, you said in your Theatre Lives interview that you were inspired early on by the Standard Theater, and the woman who protested against its demolition and the women who worked there. Have you looked for plays like this, to uplift and highlight women’s issues?
Daphne Kuhn: Yes, I’m always looking, but at the same time I’ve learned to be more realistic as a producer because you can’t have too many very serious plays. The theatre, as it is, is difficult to keep alive, so there must be a balance. I’m always looking for plays that are obviously more cerebral and have an issue to discuss, although I’m not an activist at heart. But I really admire people that are, and I try in my own small way, in the medium of theatre, to do worthwhile plays that will appeal to all, and try and get them to understand the basic message of the play. But there’s always balance as you can see my line-ups. There are the lighter, entertaining comedies, with a meaning or purpose sometimes, and often music and whatnot. But I do think that I have been inspired in my life by women’s activism projects, and I also think that we as producers and all in the theatre, whether you are performers, or technicians, or production people, or whatever, we’ve got a responsibility to the public, and I think that’s what it’s all about.
Have you looked for female centric plays specifically? Are they hard to find?
Daphne: I don’t think specifically, but when I travel I read a lot of plays. And I go and visit theatre and drama libraries and shops in London, and New York, and Israel, and wherever I go. I’m always looking for something substantial, and a lot of our plays have had women as the centre, such as Blonde Poison with Fiona Ramsay, and of course Revlon Girls. So perhaps subconsciously I am, as a woman. But layered into that, I have to look at so many themes that may appeal to different people of different cultures and backgrounds, and make my choices as diverse as possible. But of course perhaps at the back of my mind, a desire for these issues and activism is probably there, and I’m not even aware of it. I think it’s very important.
Natasha Sutherland: Needing to find that balance between types of plays that you spoke about actually makes me personally work harder, as a writer and a performer. And it’s something that Lesedi and I kept on discussing in Brutal Legacy is that the “darkness needs to be earned.” You can’t just vomit up activism, or protest, or emotion, or spotlight this or that important issue. So as writers and directors and performers it’s making us work harder within the constructs of the piece, to a point where we have the right to do so. Lesedi always used to say, “Don’t be apologetic for this Tash, because you have earned it through X, Y and Z.” And that journey has been very rewarding.
I thought the court step scene was a climactic moment in the story, but she didn’t seem to frame it as such in the book, which I found interesting. Why do you think she did that?
Natasha: One of the reasons Tracy wrote the book, and I think it’s been brewing for a while, was the Reeva Steenkamp trial. It kick started her to actually get into it and that court scene definitely had a knock on effect.
Lesedi Job: I think in the book, how I understood it, was that she was reflecting on it in terms of what happened to her in that moment. But I think years later, she is aware of how special that moment was for her. It’s kind of going, “Oh, I lost the case and it’s deeply painful. I can’t!” But at the same time you think, “But wait a minute. Something has happened here that is bigger than me. And if I allow myself to take a moment outside of myself, and not to indulge, I will see the bigger picture.” Which, at the time, is very difficult to do. But years later, you realize, and it’s a special moment.
Natasha: There was one moment she mentioned – you know, she was wonderfully ambitious and she had these dreams of her brand, and being this primetime news media host which was inspiring for all of us, at that period of time. And that was brought to a crashing halt. And then, somewhere in the book, I don’t know exactly where it is, after we’ve experienced the court scene, she says, “My sullied name was used in the rewriting of the Domestic Violence Bill.” And it was a way of her saying that something good came of something bad. So for me, that moment was pretty awesome – but maybe only in hindsight, in retrospect.
Why is this not a #MenAreTrash moment?
Natasha: Because I think it’s very clear that, as Tracy said in the Q&A, she’s empathetically looking at everything. We don’t know, as Lesedi kept reminding us, what her father went through in his early home life. Her son is a male, and clearly affected by the cycle of abuse. Even her ex – she alludes to it in the book and we tried to reflect it in the play – was brought up in a neglectful house, where the father was a certain way and the mother was a certain way. And we’re saying it has to be addressed on all levels. Unfortunately it does seem to be that it’s the victims who need to speak out – and the perpetrators and the victims dance this dance all the time, and to heal the one is a knock on effect to heal the other. So my answer to your question is for us to heal this issue of violence against women will impact my children and they are boys, they are male. This is not just about fixing the world for myself, and so that is something that very much resonates for me.
Lesedi: And in many ways it has got nothing to do with that man. It’s got everything to do with Tracy.
Natasha: And as for #MeToo and #MenAreTrash… I understand the benefits of social media and the benefits of campaigns like that. But I’m also very aware of what I call outrage porn. Because then it becomes more about the outrage and less about the subject matter. And that is why when I look at this play; I want to be very careful. For this play – to take her life, her tears, her son, her everything, and to throw it neatly into a box marked “Outrage” is disrespectful and myopic. By all means let it ignite us, make us angry, sad, fearful, let us create a platform, dialogue, like the Q and A, or a discussion. But let it be more meaningful than outrage porn.
Is this play holding the perpetrator, or any man guilty of abuse, accountable? Is it making men take a step back and hold other men accountable?
Lesedi: Can I be honest? I didn’t make this play for men. I made it for women. That’s the point I’m going to put out. I don’t care what men do. Honestly, I’m interested in the woman that sits there and goes, “I want to get out.” The woman that sits there and goes, “I’m in an abusive relationship.” And the reason why I’m doing that is because I don’t understand why a man must be involved in this! Why must we focus on why suddenly is it #MenAreTrash when actually this is about a celebration of a very particular woman. It’s lovely to hear what men think. But I want the women to stand up and go, “I can’t let this happen to me again. I don’t want this to happen to me.” How many people have written this? How many people have said these things? I think “What’s Love Got To Do With It” was one of the first, where Tina Turner was brave enough to go, “Ike Turner abused me in this way” and put it out there. And so many women would touch on it and go, “Oh, I was abused. Something happened.” So Tracy went to the dark place and said, “This is what happened to me. Not just there. But in my past in Brits. And it happened to me, it happened to my mom, and my brother, and it happened to my sister. And look at me now.” You look at Tracy and I think she’s even stronger than ever. I’m not interested in sitting and going, “What do the men think?” Let the men think. Because I also think there are men that won’t react to this violently, but quite emotionally. Not even victims of abuse but men that might be moved by it. Because violence and anger are secondary emotions. Primary is hurt. So when those men say they want to beat him up, and they’re angry, actually they are really hurt.
Natasha: But I also think that at the end of the day, we are storytellers. And when I was writing Brutal Legacy I had the good fortune to speak to Liz Meiring. I remember telling her that I was writing this, and she said something which resonated with me. She said, “ Don’t tell the story of abuse. Tell the story of Tracy’s journey.” And that’s really what we tried to do. Otherwise we might as well have shot a documentary, and tried to make it very didactic. But I don’t want to ever take away the spirit of the story, or of this person’s triumphs.
What kind of conversations are you hoping this opens up? What are you hoping people are going to walk away from this play talking about? And in a similar vein, was there a show you watched in your youth that you reacted to in a similar way, or that impacted you in a way that you’re hoping to have an impact on you?
Daphne: You know, for the women in the audience, I think it may have had some kind of effect that triggered some kind of reaction. We did a similar show years ago about “Alison”, by Liz Waite, and how she went through all of this stuff and somehow survived, and she lived to tell the tale. But it also is not about the men, it’s about empowering women to be strong, and to stand up and be strong.
Lesedi: For me, it’s someone sitting in the audience who goes, “I need to get out of the relationship.” I know that I find a sense of healing, because this resonates with me. Or even a man. It’s that moment where you watch something, and something you were oblivious about is revealed to you. That epiphany. For me, that was Sarafina. Growing up. I was born in ‘84 so I’m growing up during the state of emergency, and the turning of the tide in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela being released. So things were really sort of touch and go with the country. And I think my parents raised both my sister and I to be aware, but they also protected us. So there would be incidents where, for example, you know we lived in Soweto and we didn’t go to school. And they wouldn’t really say, “Listen, there are riots and people are on strike. So you know if we take you to school it’s a problem.” But I remember watching Sarafina. And, I mean, I knew there was this thing that was happening in the country, where there was a social divide. But you know, I’m going to school and I have white friends, but I don’t live in the suburbs, I live in the township. And after I watched Sarafina, I was shifted. I remember going to school the next day, and I felt deeply uncomfortable because I was like, “Why do white people hate me so much?” And for me that’s the part I think it’s that moment when you go, “Something is wrong in the world.” And it’s something you didn’t know was wrong before. It’s that moment for me that I always try and go for as a storyteller. Because I’ve experienced it myself. And you can have that intention of affecting change in the world as a storyteller – it might not work, but it’s that moment that you hope for. But at the same time, you just want to tell a story about a girl from Brits, who became the first Morning Live TV presenter. It’s those little things.
Natasha: All of the dialogues that are opened up, for me, are fantastic and are wonderful. But if we managed to communicate her courage, that is the story of the play. We get stories every night in the audience. Whether it’s people feeling guilty, or who know of someone who knows of someone… The stories are unbelievable, and I think that is just such a beautiful bonus. At one of the shows, we finished the show, and like half of the audience just sat crying. Daphne’s stage manager said, “We don’t know what to do, we’ve got to set up the stage for the next show!” And there are people in the audience just sitting there, slowly starting to talk very quietly to each other, to process their emotions. It’s so moving to hear and see. And at the end of Tracy’s journey, she owns being a victim, she owns accountability, she owns her shame in her book. And I think that is maybe why the polarization of #MenAreTrash is for me not what the play is about. She has incorporated all of it to a very clear point, and that for me is her courage. And the last monologue she gives is an end to the journey, where she says, “Yes dad, you’re a rubbish.” She doesn’t say it in an outraged kind of way. She says it with surrender. A surrender, but with love. I think she figured out, “I’m human. I have a heart. Yes you have hurt me, but I won’t let you take my heart away from me, and I won’t let you erase yourself from my life.”
Brutal Legacy is showing at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square from April 4-27.