Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre for a group of ex-'ladies of the night' in Berea, Johannesburg

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Service: * * * *
Food: * * * *
Ambience: * * * *
Babe Count: * * * *

This morning, 11 o’clock, I’m in my car, parked outside a block of flats in Berea, near Hillbrow. Pretty much the roughest area in South Africa.

An old coloured man has his hand out, near my window. He says, ‘I’m on my way to the hospital for a checkup an I was jus wondering if you got five rand to spare for me my brother?’

I say, ‘Thanks for asking, majita, but I’m not going to give you money. I wish you good luck though.’

I’m waiting for my compatriots to arrive for us to go upstairs to the first floor of the block where we’re going to do an Augusto Boal Forum Theatre workshop with some ex-'ladies of the night'.

The old man stays put, and I decide to get out of my car and go into the building. As I get out, a white woman crosses the road and starts talking to me out of the blue.

She says, ‘Howzit, hey? I live in Sandton, but my mom and brother kicked me out cos we had a disagreement but it’s okay cos I’m only going to be here a few days cos I’ve got a friend who lives on the ninth floor and she’s cool cos she’s giving me meals and I can bath whenever I want and there’s no problem but my mom’s just sold a property she had in Sandton, no, Rivonia, no, Sandton, for two point four million and she’s moving into a townhouse, and she’s got another property in Rosebank worth two point eight million and she’s gonna sell that too, cos she’s getting on in years you know?’

And the coloured guy says, ‘Is it, hey? Two million? Yis.’

And she says to me, ‘The only problem living here is THE BLACKS!!!’ and she looks at the man as she says it, and he scowls at her.

‘So,’ she says, ‘I wanna ask you a personal question if you don’t mind, but you don’t have to answer it cos I’m forty eight, hey? and it SHOWS! with all these wrinkles, hey? So I wanna know, but only if you wanna answer, you got a girlfriend or anything?’

‘Yeah,’ I say.

‘Well I just wanna say,’ she says, ‘you’re BLOODY good looking! Bloooody good looking!’

Hell, I'm not THAT good looking.

And I spot Linda-Michael, Rosie, Bongani, Kenneth, and Louise walking up from the Hillbrow Community Theatre. I’m saved!!!

‘Uh…’ I say, ‘Here are my friends now, so I’ve gotta go. Nice talking to you both.’

She says, ‘Well listen, just don’t trust these BLACKS, okay?’ and she goes back into her block. He stays standing with his hand out.

‘Broe, I’m not going to give you any bucks. Hamba gahle, chum,’ I say. (‘Brother, I’m not gonna give you any money. Go well, chum.)

So the six of us head up to the first floor, where the New Life Centre has a drop-in office for women who are wanting to leave the sex-work industry. We’re here to do a three-hour workshop with them, in which they’ll dramatise how they came to be prostitutes, and what they can do differently.

There are 28 women in total, and we do some warmup exercises. Lots of laughter. Lots of fun. Then we break into four groups, with one of us facilitating each group, and two roving facilitators. I’m the overall facilitator of the process, so I’m bouncing between groups, with Linda-Michael also roving.

The women tell each other a true life story of oppression, and the groups each choose one story to dramatise, borrowing elements from all of the stories they’ve told. Then we facilitate them doing some of Augusto Boal’s ‘Image Theatre’. They make a living sculpture out of the beginning of their story, the low-point, and the end. Then we get them to connect the three images into a five-minute play.

We draw lots, and the first group presents their play. This is what happens in it.

A young girl is studying with her classmates at school. She notices the time. ‘Oh! It’s late!!!’ She rushes off home, where her mom is vehemently sweeping the floor. The mother is furious at her daughter’s lateness. Screams at her. The daughter tries to tell her mom that she’s been at school, but the woman turns on her with the broom, and beats her. The girl falls to the ground, crying. Next scene, she’s at the hospital with a broken arm. The sister wraps it in a bandage and sends her home. The girl goes home, but asks her friends to persuade her mom to be merciful. The mom doesn’t give a damn, and beats her daughter with the broom again. The daughter flees the house, and comes to the big city. The end.

I facilitate the forum theatre part. I say, ‘What do you see? What’s the story here?’ One of the women summarises. Then I say, ‘Was the ending good or bad?’

A chorus of voices. ‘It’s bad.’ Someone adds, ‘She’s going to the city and she’ll become a prostitute!’

I say, ‘Is there anything she could have done differently?’

One of the women says, ‘Yes! She must stand up to her mother!’

I say, ‘Okay. Come show us.’

The ladies all laugh, and she shyly stands up, and takes her place on the makeshift stage. She plays the girl who got beaten. She tries a different approach, but this mother is merciless. She doesn’t want excuses. Same outcome.

Another lady wants a go. She is much more assertive with her mom, and makes some inroads, but the mom is still angry. This time she doesn’t get beaten, but the mom wants her out of the house.

A third lady tries. She uses subterfuge and seduction to appease her mom. This works much better than any of the other options. Still not a great outcome, but significantly better.

I sum up. ‘Notice how the option that worked best was when the girl communicated with her mother better?’ They agree. I say, ‘But there’s still a problem. This woman, the mother, is hard, and we’re not going to change her. So we have to understand that the only thing we can change is how we deal with her. But still, even so, maybe she’s STILL going to throw her daughter out, no matter what.’

One woman says, in a small voice, ‘That’s what happened to me. That’s why I’m here.’

Two other women nod.

We go onto the next three plays, each of them being facilitated in a similar way, with striking parallels in the way the stories unfold. Rural girl comes to city to make it big, and falls into prostitution as a result. Hard stuff, man.

At the end, the ladies serve us lunch, a chicken curry. I’m normally a picky eater, but in this case, I’ve said to myself, whatever they offer me to eat, I’ll gladly accept. It would be an extreme insult to refuse their food in my books. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t know in advance that Rosie and Louise are vegetarian, so they don’t eat. But it’s okay. Nobody seems to be judging them for it. I’m very satisfied with my meal. Delicious.

I’m quite shaken by the stories and the way only small shifts were made in the problem solving phase. But Louise points out that the ladies really had a good response. ‘They were laughing and enjoying themselves, Roy. This was fun for them.’

Bongani says, ‘They can’t change what’s happened. They can only change what’s going to happen.’

So we leave the group feeling mixed emotions. Knowing that we’ve made some kind of difference.

I get down to the road, and see that my car is still there, and it still has all of its wheels and doors, and nobody’s sliced through the convertible top with a dagger. Excellent. The old man's not there either.

[UPDATE: I've added my 'rating system' to this post. I've decided that my focus on this blog has wavered, and it's time to take control back. I'll be reviewing coffee-shops more from now on!!! -- Roy, March 20, 2006, Cresta]

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  1. ABFAB Roy! I love the contrast evoked b/w the racist with rich Sandton mom and the beggar in 'the most deprived part of SA'! The process so succinctly and creatively presented - inspiring, clarifying and acutely generous. Viva!

    I'd like to make 2 comments: 1 about facilitation. It's really important in TO facilitation NOT to plant opinions like - that solution worked best! I find it galvanises the spectactors most when you rather ask, really openly: Which one worked best for you and why? Not to talk too much, but to stimulate further interventions too! The other thing is, the facilitator in TO/Joker is often more accurately called the "Difficultator", so don't be put off by the fact that only slight shifts emerge from the interventions - one can only change the world in baby steps - and slight shifts can be HUGE! You know one of the bases of chaos theory?: The flap of a butterfly's wings (it was actually originally a seagul - but I like butterfly!) can cause a hurricane in another part of the world's climactic system. Thanks so much for your report - I learnt much! I hope this comment goes public on our Boal sight as well - can you see to this? Inspired, Manya!

  2. Huge thanks, Manya...

    Very cool comment you've made.

    I must admit to condensing my facilitation into a few pithy sentences. As far as I can recall (which is not VERY far at all, since I was very much in the moment yesterday, and don't have clear analytical access to what I was saying), I pretty much did continually ask them for their opinions on what worked. My key questions were: 'What is happening here?' and 'How did this change things?'. Something like that.

    Will the other people who were with me give notes on this?

    Re the shifts... yeah... you're VERY right. Small shifts can make huge changes. I do need to say that it was an enormously emotional space to be in yesterday. It's just so hectic seeing these women who are really just little girls at heart brutalised by this profession they've found themselves locked into. I'm really glad organisations like NEW LIFE CENTRE exist.

    I'd like to suggest that one of the standard operating procedures of our group needs to be a notes session directly after an intervention. I know I need perspective.

    Blue skies


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