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Lebo Mashile's new play deals with weighty matters

Top poet Lebo Mashile has seen her weight being made a topic many times in the media. /Gallo Images/Oupa Bopape
Top poet Lebo Mashile has seen her weight being made a topic many times in the media. /Gallo Images/Oupa Bopape

After years of enduring body shaming and criticism about her weight, performer, author and poet Lebo Mashile has turned her pain into a theatre piece.

Venus versus Modernity- one woman's story of resilience! opened at the Market Theatre in Newtown yesterday.

The show addresses the politics of the body. Written and conceptualised by Mashile, the two-hander play also features talented performer and singer Ann Masina.

After its run at the Market Theatre, the production heads to Amsterdam for next month's Afro-Vibes Theatre Festival.

The play, which first opened in 2017 at the Centre for The Less Good Idea in Johannesburg, was inspired by private and public wars that Mashile has had about her weight.

Her weight was written about many times in the media until she decided to address the issue through her pen.

Fusing spoken word poetry, dialogue and music across genres to recreate the story, Masina and Mashile juxtapose the life that Saartjie Baartman lived 200 years ago with what is happening at the moment in the country.

Baartman, who was a voluptuous woman, was treated like an animal and exhibited in freak shows in Europe.

Fast forward to the 21st century, women still live in fear and are afraid to be judged by society.

Mashile adds that what Baartman suffered centuries ago is still happening in society.

"I started working with Anna Masina two years ago but I have been developing the show for five years with Pamela Nomvete.

"It comes from a personal place because there were many stories written about me and my weight," she says.

Mashile adds: "The fact is that there is always something wrong with our bodies as black women. You can trace that back to Saartjie, and I am not the only one who had to go through this. Look at what they are doing to Caster Semenya. She is a 21st- century version of Saartjie herself."

She believes that they're both perfect to tell the story because they are performers, plus-size black women and single mothers.

While the events depicted were historically accurate, Mashile mentioned that the inclusion of Venus, a tempestuous, passionate and formidable goddess, allows the piece to delve into a fictionalised inner world for Baartman.

Mashile defines the show as one of the most emotional shows that deals with sensitive matters.

"It is a very sensitive and touching story. It deals with sex work, alcoholism, colonialism, exploitation, slavery, and how Saartjie was degraded. But the story is funny, energizing, inspiring and entertaining.

"There are so many twists and turns."

Meanwhile, Mashile is unsure about how the public will react to the show. Like any new work, she experienced some challenges while creating it.

"I like to work with people who understand me. The energy is good; we seem to be on the same page. We have remained true to Saartjie's life in terms of telling the story.

"We are also injecting a new life.

"The piece is abstract but has contemporary references, and looking at what is happening now. It is Venus in battle with life in 2019. "

Masina, a very talented vocalist, has worked extensively with William Kentridge, Robin Orlyn, and with Soweto Gospel Choir.

Venus versus Modernity is on until September 28.

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