This is for Keeps explores domestic violence

thisisforkeepsposter This is for Keeps was workshopped by veteran theatre producers Vanessa Cooke, Janice Honeyman and Danny Keogh, and adapted by Makgano Mamabolo, Sello Motloung and Ntshieng Mokgoro.
(Image: Windybrow Theatre)
Ntshieng Mokgoro believes the theatre can be a safe place for men to learn new ways of dealing with their changing roles in South African society.
(Image: Sulaiman Philip)

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Sulaiman Philip

Tense and claustrophobic, This is for Keeps drops the audience into the middle of a home and marriage where violence and control are the norm. Director, Ntshieng Mokgoro, has been work-shopping the play for almost a year and it will run until 8 December at the Windybrow Theatre in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow.

Initially she wanted her run to begin in June but the harrowing drama about domestic violence works better as South Africa turns the spotlight on the impact of violence against women in November and December. Although not part of the official 16 Days of Activism programme, the work highlights the long road women still have to travel to enjoy equal protection promised under the constitution.

“South Africa women still have too many of these stories to tell. We have programmes … but nothing really changes. Women are still targets because we sugar coat so much. As a mother, woman and artist I wanted to find a way to tell a story that says women are still at the end of the stick.”

The play’s success is dependent on the quality of the performances and in her two actors – Sello Motloung and Harriet Manamela – Mokgoro has performers who do not flinch from the unpleasant plots. Both are best known as soapie actors but they have developed an intimacy that makes the physical and verbal abuse even more shocking.

“Sello wanted to go soft when he should be releasing the dark ferocious monster. He wanted to charm the audience into complacency. It’s an argument we constantly had. I wanted to be visceral, to shock the audience into starting a debate.”

In the original 1983 Market Theatre production, a white couple’s violent relationship is laid bare. that production identifies poverty as the root of the violence used to control the female lead. Fast forward 30 years and Mokgoro and her cast tweak the story in an interesting and controversial way.

Are women complicit?

Mokgoro begins by accepting that abuse is a crime, a rampant black mark on the soul of our nation. However, she argues, it has become far too easy to just point fingers at abusive men without asking why our society has become so violent.

“We should be beyond just criminalising their behaviour; the discussion should not end there. Are we as women complicit in the helplessness black South African men feel today? I believe it’s a discussion we need to have.”

We have neglected black men Mokgoro says. “We have empowered women; we are constantly reminding girl children that they are special. We need balance. We need to let men and boys know that they are an integral part of this journey.”

Mokgoro says that she did not want to just unpack the psychology of male violence for her audience. She did not want to give theatre goers a cheap violent cathartic thrill. She wanted them to be shocked into asking the question, “Have we been complicit in shunting black men to the side. Have we robbed them of their identity while embracing our roles as breadwinners?”

Campaigns such as 16 Days of Activism have their place the director says, but we need to be having the discussion year round. We say we applaud strong women who stand up and say that violence against women must end; we say we must return to values of ubuntu, but at the end of the campaign we go back to business as usual.

“I know women, strong successful women who stand up and give speeches against violence. We all applaud but then they go home to husbands who abuse them. How can these women really help make a change?”

The root of her provocative staging stems from Mokgoro’s other theatre work. She has long championed the role of female directors and the telling of female-centric stories and has staged works with similar themes. She says that without fail, after every performance an audience member pulls her aside to thank Mokgoro for telling her story.

Mokgoro argues that South Africans find it is easier to deal with issues in an abstract way. Many families don’t know how to begin the conversation about the abuse they are aware of, but they will bring someone along to watch a play like This is for Keeps, hoping that it starts a discussion.

Mokgoro believes theatre’s power lies in its ability to unlock silence. She identifies herself as a feminist director and wants her adaptation to begin a debate.

“If anyone, having seen the show, feels able to ask the question of a friend or neighbour, or to say that it’s happened to them before, then maybe we can make a small difference.”

This is for Keeps opens at the Windybrow Theatre on 26 November at 8pm.