Hairology at the National Arts Festival, Makhanda

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A play created by the Rhodes Drama Department
Directed by Lyndré Bonhomme
Cast: Aaliyah Linkov, Ziyanda Gwala, Andiswa Zikhali, Mihle Ndlodaka, Elisa Mabusela and Siboniso Ngwane
Stage Manager: Ndalo Mbombo
Venue: Rehearsal Room, National Arts Festival, Makhanda

I have no hair on top of my head, and a dog knows more about gourmet cooking than I do about fashion. Despite these clear setbacks, I have a keen interest in the narratives regarding hair in our country. Why?

  • I raised two black kids.
  • I lived in the Venda region for four years and saw the fascination with long hair and light-coloured hair among kids from the rural villages.
  • I have been fortunate to help promote Bianca Flanders’s Prinses Pampoenpit, translated as Pumpkin finds her queen. Two more books followed in this series: Pumpkin finds her kindness and Pumpkin finds her beat.
  • Quite recently I saw My kroon se krank by Veronique Jephthas and Lynthia Julies at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees. It was really good and my festival companion, Lara Aucamp, said she’d want her future kids to see plays like that.

Hairology itself threw a memory at me.

In the play a young Muslim girl mentions that her mom used to say that a woman should never cut her hair, as hair is a woman’s crown that would one day cover her “shame” on the day of reckoning. Lo and behold, I had heard the same from my father’s mother, Ouma Lenie.

Ouma Lenie was a devout Christian who died at the age of 98 having never cut her hair.

Hair in South Africa is not merely a natural body phenomenon – it is political – but Hairology is fun. It did not have the multi-layered political underpinnings of My kroon se krank, but it did pack an enormous amount of social commentary into a fairly short show.

The simple set resembled a barber shop, with a clever partition behind the players where shadows cast comments on what had happened on the stage.

This was clever, but showed just how adaptable these young actors were.

During the event the venue lost electricity – possibly when the main generator that had powered the entire monument complex stopped when Eskom returned electricity to Makhanda.

There was a brief moment when absolutely no lights worked, and since the theatre is so deep in the stomach of the monument, it was pitch dark.

The rather dim emergency lights kicked in, and the actors simply continued. Audience members valiantly tried to help with cell phone lights, which sadly blinded everyone. Still the actors continued. Eventually the technical crew managed to restore the stage lights, but the light source which provided the shadow play did not come back on. The cast tried a cell phone light, but it proved to be ineffective and so the last minutes of the play happened without the shadow comments.

That took some doing from young actors.

The “story line”

Hairology is not a play with a beginning, middle and end. Instead it is a collage of various skit-like incidents, each telling a different story of a specific woman and her hair.

In certain instances the play turned into obvious metatheatre, with the cast doing choreographed, dance-like routines.

At times a character – sometimes alone on stage – would narrate a story.

During others scenes two or more characters would act out a skit, rather than tell a story.

Sometimes a wig or a weave would take on an entire personality.

The clever structure provided a fun-filled 45 minutes during which many poignant stories about hair, and people’s reaction to hair, managed to be told.

The rather intimate relationship between the client and the hairdresser was discussed, as well as the pain involved in beauty. At times the hairstylist acted like a lover; at other times she turned into a raging monster who hurt those in the chair in front of her.

Anyone interested in, or curious about, the politics of hair in South Africa, should enjoy seeing this show.

Parts of the play are in Xhosa, but it is a modern-day student Xhosa and easy to understand. Even those who have no background in Xhosa will be able to follow the narrative through the actions on stage and the English spoken during most of the show.

  • Photographs: Izak de Vries
See also:

The 49th edition of the National Arts Festival is happening.

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