Jemma Kahn takes you into the mouth of the wolf like the theatre warrior she is

Jemma Kahn in In Bocca Al Lupo in designs by Ella Buter directed by Jane Taylor

It had to come to this in the third of her Kamishibai series which started with The Epicene Butcher, followed by We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants. Now with In Bocca Al Lupo, the innovative Jemma Kahn (2018 Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for Theatre) turns the spotlight on herself – sharply – and we get to know where the series comes from and how it started. DIANE DE BEER gives the lowdown on a short run at the end of the month at POPArt in Maboneng:

It’s the perfect way to go if you are creating your own work which probably like for most stage creatives, is all about making a living. She had to turn somewhere new while maintaining the structure that has made this solo series such a rich and rewarding enterprise.

It is about working those changes while not losing the essence of what makes something work in the first place. And this is where Kahn cleverly brough playwright Tertius Kapp on board . Even and especially when telling such a personal story, it is good to have an outside eye. And arguably someone who is not involved with what is being shared on stage.

“After every kamishibai show I say ‘not again’ or rather ‘not again immediately’ but then an idea comes to mind that niggles me. The idea of the multiple boxes came first and then I thought, ‘if there are four, it could be about family – one story, four perspectives.’

“I approached Tertius to write with me because I had enjoyed his story for Croissants so much. I’d also enjoyed our back and forth and I wanted to work with him again. He asked for some writing and I sent him a pile of shit; a few diary-type entries (some which I had written whilst in Japan) and some pretentious descriptive pieces. He thought the kamishibai origin story was a good one. We sat and had a bottle of wine, I told him about The Irishman and he was like ‘whaaaaa? There’s a story here’.”

The partnership was on a roll … again. He hammered it into a 3 Act structure and Kahn sent him writing. “He would say ‘we need to know what happened here’, or ‘did this happen?’ – prompting me. I needed prompting because writing is an impossibly irritating and boring and painful exercise. All I remember was sitting with my forehead mashed against the keyboard howling. Was it hard to be that personal? Yes and no. Again Tertius was very helpful with curating what ended up on the stage.

He told it like it is: “‘Don’t put a wound on stage and expect a plaster.’ he said. So nothing that ended up in the show was emotionally unresolved. Through the process of rehearsals with Jane (Taylor) and then hitting the road alone, I did relive some stuff and sometimes that was painful. Painful but not destructive.”

Jemma Kahn
The 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for Theatre

This is hard stuff, putting yourself out there, but Kahn has always been that girl. She knocks your expectations down quite quickly in Bucca when she shares how unhappy she was in Japan, especially as this is seemingly where her theatre genesis established itself in her mind. But that’s her story, unexpected, with much to say about our world, especially the stage she finds herself on with her particular career choice.

She describes this one as cathartic though because she could learn to love Japan again, “although it nearly killed me. Also it was a way of telling my parents things that were too difficult to say to their faces. And I like remembering my grandmother. I like that strangers know her name because if people know her name she can still be around. I like having her around.”

Kahn might not be the predictable pick for particular roles but it is those quirky choices that often turns a theatre piece on its head and appeals to those who are constantly waiting for the unexpected. In tough times, taking risks though, are often prohibitive – sadly.

But then again, had Kahn’s obvious creative talent been spotted and applied from the start, what she has come up with might never have seen the light of day. She was forced to experiment and explore, and being who she is, she did.

“Good actors are watchable for so many reasons,” responds Kahn. “Whatever the case may be. I’m starting to understand what makes me watchable.  Though I resent the word brave I think that is it. Fearlessness. Of course it’s not real. In real life I have fears. But they are very deep down. Over the course of a show, I can be fearless. “

That’s how it works and those that need that push and can deliver, share the magic with those watching. Which is exactly what Kahn does that makes her performances so exciting. And I haven’t even touched on her visual acuity.

She has street smarts. She picks the right team to surround her, knows and understands the impact of design and colours every corner of a performance in the sharpest shades. Add to that 160 illustrations by Kahn that illustrate her story elaborately and music by the brilliant Charl Johan Lingervelder to set the mood.

It’s a wild ride.

Jemma Kahn2
Jemma Kahn
  • In Bocca Al Lupo can be seen at POPArt in Joburg’s Maboneng Precinct on 29, 30 November and 1 and 2 December at 8pm; as well as 2 and 3 December at 3:30pm.

    Tickets are R 150. Block rates available for groups over 10pax

    Venue: POPArt Theatre, 286 Fox Street, Johannesburg

    Tickets available at :

    Running time: 70mins

  • In Cape Town next year at the Alexander Bar from February 28 to March 10.