Mandisa Haarhof, creator of Crush-hopper, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

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Short review by JvE

One of my favourite plays at the recent Hilton Arts Festival was the charming and touching Crush-hopper, Mandisa Haarhof’s semi-autobiographical story about coming to terms with her mixed heritage. This show won a Standard Bank Ovation award at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and Haarhof won the Musho Festival’s Audience for Best Performer earlier this year. Quite rightly so. This former student of mine has been trying to articulate her complicated background since writing her first play in my scriptwriting class at UKZN. I’ve also seen her Media Studies film in which she tackled the subject. Finally, in this play she uses the mixed-genre format of straight play-acting, song and dance to express her identity crisis in the most moving way possible. I was reduced to tears as Haarhof recreated the many facets which go into her coloured/Xhosa background and her search for self-acceptance. Her gift for mimicking the various influences on her life turns this piece into a brilliant comedy. The pathos behind her trying so hard to be white, even to the extent of wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt on her head when she is small to pretend she has long hair, cuts deep into our race-conscious society. She uses a series of crushes which she develops on “light-skinned coloured or white boys” as the vehicle to travel into her search for identity. This play was my stand-out performance of the festival. It deserves to be seen widely.

(Slightly altered review from the Sunday Independent, 25th September)

 Q and A

Mandisa, I had the joy of having you in my scriptwriting class a few years ago, but it was such a pleasure to see how far you’ve come since then in your play Crush-hopper. You have been trying to deal with the confusion caused by your racially mixed background since I’ve known you, and in this play you have found the perfect vehicle to articulate all these feelings. What I loved most was the humorous element you brought to it, which was missing, perhaps, in the first two versions of your story. Could you tell me and the readers of LitNet how you finally found the right way to express your feelings about your heritage?

Yes Janet, it was in those classes where I began to deal with these issues of being a racially mixed individual, a mix-coloured, through the use of writing that helped me find ways of articulating my thoughts and experiences. I kept writing and rewriting, but it was always heavily emotional and thus distasteful until I wrote the poem titled “Crush-hopper” in 2009 for the Lover and Another Poetry Festival run by Diana Wilson and Karen Suter. That’s when I started to see how the guys I’ve been attracted to have been influenced by my understanding of racial stereotypes. I then began to write little pieces of poetry and songs which make up most of the play and then through storytelling linked everything into a final script. The stories of my crushes were quite an interesting discovery about how I have shaped my whole world around concepts of race in many other areas of my life. I basically wrote the play asking myself this question: How did I become this way? I did not want to place blame on anything, but rather to reflect on my own journey and experiences. I began to laugh at myself and the way I thought, which by now had become a very deeply subconscious way of engaging with the world. All this came out through conversations with my director Ntokozo Madlala. I would write the conversations down, then compile what it was I wanted the audience to take away. I always work from the notion that whatever private experiences we have as individuals reflect the narrative journey of our nation. I then had to see what the defining aspects of my story were that reflected South Africans at large. That’s when I could see what my hopes for my nation and myself were.

The direction of Crush-hopper was excellent and I was disappointed not to see your director, Ntokozo Madlala, credited in the Hilton Festival programme. Can you tell me a bit about why you chose her to do this? Or did she choose you? J

Ntokozois one of the most wonderful women I know. Her word is her honour and she has given so much to see this play go places. She is one of the lecturers at UKZN and a good friend of mine. She challenged me to write my own play and submit it for the Musho Festival since I hated acting but loved writing. I did wonder how it was all going to pan out, but it turned out so beautifully in the end. She’s my acting supervisor so the university initially asked her to help me as she works for them. But I couldn’t have chosen or have been directed by a better person. She wanted my story and that is what the audience got even when at times I refused to talk, or act, for that matter and just wanted to sing and dance. She let me express myself and found ways in which we could use my first loves – singing and dancing. Now I love telling stories, no matter what the medium.

Can you tell me how Crush-hopper was received at the Grahamstown Festival and then at Musho? Why do you think it has such a profound effect on audiences?

Wow, we’ve had the best experiences with this show. Musho is where it all began. The house was full of young and old, black and white and coloured, Indian. They were my first audience. They were awestruck – as was I. They by the story to which so many responded which moved them with its provocative honesty and also the fact that I was so young and could carry such a story. The Musho committee were expecting a student who was just going to entertain them and instead they discovered a woman who had something to say. I was struck that the audience related to so many different things. They saw my own racism in themselves and it wasn’t just white racism - it was a personal decision that we all had to take responsibility for our own feelings. For example, in my final declaration that I will love and that love will be the first basis of approach whether my love interest is black, coloured or white.

Grahamstown was a beautiful, nostalgic moment for me. It is home. I live a few hours outside Grahamstown and the people spoke my languages: Afrikaans and Xhosa. It was also a sad experience, as a lot of people had to face the truth that many young people struggle with identity and have to shape their own way of understanding race. Though we didn’t have full houses the audience laughed, cried and spoke among one another and with me and Ntokozo about the play long after it was finished. There was a Norwegian group which came to our first performance and they took us to lunch because they had no way to express their gratitude for what they had just seen. An old friend of mine who no longer resides in South Africa wept and understood why she loves being South African because she, too, shares in the identity of this nation, even though she is white. South Africa is not just about being black. It’s a combination of all races. The conversations that came out of our Grahamstown performances were along the lines of Adrienne Sichel saying that our work must be published as it needs to reach a wider audience. Many others invited us to festivals and schools. They said that this is a national story that needs to be told.

You deal with rather touchy subjects in this play, such as some members of your Xhosa background who treated you with violence rather than with love. How do you deal with the reactions of family members to what you’ve written? Or haven’t they seen the performance? Would you be comfortable if they saw it?

My family came to watch the play at the Musho Festival. It was a little bit uncomfortable knowing my mother and her cousin were sitting there and were never mentioned – intentionally. But I found peace in that this is the truth and this is my story. My mother shares my experience with my aunt because when she was about my age she also went to live with my aunt and experienced the same thing. The only difference is that she left and never went back. I still visit and have decided to love through forgiveness. My father hasn’t seen it, but I was at home when I wrote it and read some of the material to him. He realised the depth of my experiences to the point of understanding why I tried taking my life a year after arriving in Port Elizabeth. He found it difficult to understand and for him my emotional response to the way I have lived is an influence of “whiteness”. This challenged me even further to write the play. I wrote a text titled “Is this culture, Dad?” which we don’t use in Crush-hopper, but which asks what are we really holding on to as “black” people and how is that relevant to how I shape and engage with my identity. I would love my whole family to see it and understand that I have become who I am because of the things they refused to let me express then. I guess the play helped me heal and deal with my issues, and I hope that when my family see it they can heal as well as know that it’s in no way a means to hurt or blame them. Rather it’s to show the effect that every context of my upbringing had on me.

You also are extremely honest about the love of “whiteness” which is part of your messed-up apartheid past. I loved the fact that you mention how important it is in the coloured community to be light-skinned. Unfortunately I have coloured friends who still bring this subject into the conversation. You make fun of it in your play and show us how absurd it is. But do you really think this race/colour issue will ever leave the collective unconsciousness of people in this country?

I love this question! I believe that I started purging myself of the unconscious racial dilemma that has been engrained in me through years of deciding what is white and what is black. When we start being honest with ourselves and decide on a way forward about how we see race, only then can we begin, individual by individual, family by family, to start to create a consciousness that is not race-free but responds in a non-racially-defined manner. I liked white boys even at university and thought only black boys who went to private schools were worth my attention. Van waar? But it was a deliberate decision to change my mindset about why I wanted what I did and establishing new convictions that helped me arrive at a place where I can like anyone if they treat me with sincerity and respect. I went to my brother’s wedding recently and a Xhosa lady was sitting behind me on the bus. She spoke for more than an hour on the phone, in pure Xhosa, and it was music to my ears. I’m not saying this to prove some black consciousness identity, but rather a real love and celebration of what is beautiful in our country. I mix my languages when I’m at home and everyone else either responds in Xhosa or Afrikaans, depending on which side of the family I’m visiting. I no longer feel the need to prove myself in order to belong. In the same way I think as a nation we need to arrive at a place where we stop trying to prove a point; where we don’t ignore our own racism in an attempt at false rainbow-nationhood; where we take responsibility as young people not to allow our parents’ version of South African history to shape our reality; where our parents can dream and envision a South Africa that is not racially categorised in how we raise and teach the next generation about the past. We need to stop forcing a consciousness of blackness or whiteness and everything else in between that only breeds contempt because we’re stuck in the past. South Africa needs a vision that is not defined by the current understanding of African-ness.

I loved this play. It made me laugh – an unusual thing for me – and this was due to your superb gift of mimicry as well as your play hitting the nail on the head on many occasions. I am sure many South Africans would really appreciate seeing it. Do you have any plans to perform Crush-hopper anywhere else?

Thank you so much Janet, I appreciated so much the comment about it being a prophetic piece, because that is what I hope it is to many. I hope it’s a truthful story that paves the way for a better South Africa. Yes, we are heading off to Cape Town next week for a short festival where I will be performing Crush-hopper at the Observatory, 5th to 8th October. A few schools have invited us and we are at the Hexagon Mini-Festival again in March next year, as well as the Grahamstown Festival for 2012. I am excited and loving this journey.

What is next on the cards for you? Do you have another play up your sleeve or do you feel you can rest for a bit now that you’ve dealt with this subject which has given you so much food for thought over the past?

I’ve got so much ahead of me; God is blessing me beyond my imagination. I am writing with my director a play called Ndim Lo, which actually came out of the material we did not use for Crush-hopper. It’s another personal adventure which deals with generational identities and those complexities and how they shape the way I’ve dealt with my relationships at large. I also hold a Fulbright Scholarship granted by the US Embassy in South Africa [Congratulations! JvE] and thus leave next year September to start my PhD in film and scriptwriting at one of the best universities in America. As you know, this is my first love. I am very excited as I’m looking at how we can use film to grow the national identities of South Africa. I have so much more I would love to talk about through the medium of film. I will continue to write plays, but perhaps not perform. I also choreograph and enjoy this too. I believe I’m walking into my destiny.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions, Mandisa!

It was a pleasure; thank you so much for asking me, Janet. You rock and I look up to you as a writer. You have played a very pertinent role in how I engage with film.



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