Nina Simone Four Women Gives Young Black Women A Powerful Platform To Speak Their Minds – It’s About Time

Busi Lerayi with Tshepo Mngoma, the piano player in performance
Busi Lerayi with Tshepo Mngoma, the piano player in performance



DIRECTOR: James Ngcobo

PLAYWRIGHT: Christine Ham




COSTUME DESIGNER: Onthatile Matshidiso

CAST: Busi Lurayi, Lerato Mvelase, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Noxolo Dlamini

MUSICIANS AND SINGERS: Bryan Mtsweni, Ezbie Moilwa, Mpho Kodisang

Smanga Ngubane, Sam Ibeh

VENUE: John Kani Theatre at the Market

DATES: Until February 24


With Artistic Director James Ngcobo’s tradition of commemorating Black History Month, his pick of this play starring mainly women is, as Nina Simone so aptly said, about “an artist’s responsibility to reflect the times”.

With the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements in everyone’s consciousness (or it should be) the Simone-driven play is a clever choice with a cast of powerful young actors strutting the stage.

And even halfway into the run, the theatre is packed with a young (mainly black) audience and they’re enraptured and engaged as these women speak to them with great gusto.

It’s not for the lily-livered because in the main, women haven’t had a voice and black women especially were never invited to speak their mind and tell their stories.

It’s their time and it’s like its all spilling out with an anger that’s palpable but covering a pain that so’s deep and so sore, it breaks your heart while listening.

In song Noxolo Dlamini, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Lerato Mvelase and Busi Lurayi
In song Noxolo Dlamini, Mona Monyane Skenjana, Lerato Mvelase and Busi Lurayi

When Simone slips into a quiet moment and opens her heart about her own experience of living in a world that seems to hate and discard her, it’s like an open wound she exposes to everyone willing to look more closely.

On September 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone shifted her career from artist to artist–activist. This is where the play begins, in the church with riots outside and the pain of four little girls killed in hatred etched on everyone’s mind. She is writing a song when three diverse women enter and engage about their lives as black women.

But so deep is the self-hatred and lack of confidence, they turn not only on those who mean them harm but also on each other as they compare shades of skin colour and the intent with which each lives her life.

Interwoven with much talk is Simone’s haunting music dominated by Mississippi Goddam, Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair and closing with the obvious Four Women, the song from which the women in the play were drawn.

And it is this mix that moves in and out of the consciousness. While the songs complete the conversations of the women, they are more contemplative if heart-breaking before the next storm unleashes as the women twist and turn in their tension and anguish of years of abuse punctuated by the current attack.

Busi Lurayi as Nina Simone surrounded by the rest of the cast.
Busi Lurayi as Nina Simone surrounded by the rest of the cast.

It is a sparse set by Nadya Cohen yet effective in its symbolic power and the women are encouraged to fill the stage, which they do with great abandon. Ncgobo obviously wanted them to embrace their power in this moment – and they do.

The performances are sometimes uneven, Lurayi perhaps hampered by capturing the Simone kinetic energy, but she soars in the quieter moments and in song. It is quite a presence that she has to establish, and the deep timbre of her voice works in her favour. Mvelase, the most comfortable on stage, inhabits her Aunt Sarah, a domestic worker, with quiet dignity, while the young Dlamini is passionate in her rebellion.

Then comes the abrasive whirlwind Monyane Skenjana to perform in the person of an unapologetic prostitute who believes in disarming if not disabling before an offensive can begin. It’s a tough performance to catch but in the mix, it brings the chaos of their lives into sharper focus and adds some light relief to what could become too much to witness and bear.

Cushioning all that is the piano playing of Brian Motsweni supported by a trio of other musicians and two singers, all adding to the depth of the soundtrack. Other sounds like the sudden rush of the riot don’t get the balance right and while the two singers worked well as they sat to the side, the look was confusing. Perhaps they would have slotted in more smoothly as part of the musos rather than characters, but not quite.

Quibbles aside, the importance of the production, what is said and who is saying it, right now, taking into account what is swirling around in the world currently, this is a majestic production.

Theatre is struggling more than ever with little help from anywhere. Even newspapers, their traditional support, are dwindling with less and less art reporting. Yet the audience who were there to look and listen, were predominantly young and black, probably the most sought-after demographic.

And they were delighted – with reason.

Khwezi reclaimed by Redi Tlhabi

We’re halfway through the international campaign, 16 Days of Activism, and today is World Aids Day. Both pertain profoundly to journalist and author Redi Tlhabi’s book about Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, better known as Khwezi. If you haven’t read it, do it now, writes DIANE DE BEER


Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo by Redi Tlhabi (Jonathan Ball):

khwezi front cover final


Redi Tlhabi showed with her first book, Endings and Beginnings: A Healing Story (Jacana, 2012), that she knows why some people’s experiences cannot go unshared. She also revealed how a journalist can add their own value to something; while personal, their view can also be universal.

In this case, it was clear that Kuzwayo’s story deserved its public frenzy, but that the issue of rape should remain in the international headlines.  It’s an ongoing, horrific tragedy – everywhere.

Yet in conversation, you find that many are still puzzled. Why don’t all women who have been raped come forward? Why, in 2017, does nothing much seem different in the way of hostility, all round? After all, this only prolongs the rape as an ongoing nightmare for the survivor.

M-Net recently broadcast a conversation with director Ryan Murphy (The Feud: Bette and Joan) in which he explained that he was saddened, when speaking to Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, to realise exactly that. Indeed, not much has changed since the Hollywood studio era when Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were the stars of the day.

Women aren’t surprised by that. We live with it daily. And Fezekile Kuzwayo represents so much of why that is so. She surely didn’t fully grasp what would happen once she went public about her rape.

That might have been because she had accused one of the most powerful men in the land. But many women living in a country where rape is endemic find the same outcome – in their villages, their churches, their offices. Going public or even speaking about being raped, and, particularly, naming your rapist, is taboo.

In Kuzwayo’s case, she was also confronted by women who, some believe, effectively collaborated against her. Many were shocked and saddened by the ANC Women’s League’s support of Zuma during his rape trial, but few were surprised. The fact of other women not giving support is a painful truth for all too many rape survivors.

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Author Redi Tlhabi

Tlhabi’s book is, thus, remarkable for many reasons. One is that it properly situates Kuzwayo for us as it deals with her past, going a long way to explain why “Khwezi” finally decided to claim her life back.

She tells of how, when she was a child and then a young woman living in exile in the ANC camps, she was raped by “uncles” who were supposed to look after her best interests. And while this is an issue that has also been in the public domain, it hasn’t really been fully addressed. This seems to be because of a belief that those who have been “wronged” – in this case, some soldiers of Umkhonto we Sizwe who gave up their lives to fight apartheid – cannot do any wrong themselves.

Kuzwayo tells a very moving story about our world.

I remember reading Tlhabi’s first book and being left open-mouthed that she was writing about 11-year-old girls scared of being raped. At that age, children should be children, but of course, not many live in that protected world – ever.

To make matters worse, once the rape of a child occurs, her whole life is devastated – not as the survivor, but as the someone who can be blamed. This is because not all communities deal appropriately with rape.

It’s something that is explained in great detail in Pumla Dinedo Gqola’s brilliant book A South African Nightmare: Rape, a book that Tlhabi also references and honours.

Yet some men still refuse to take responsibility, or even deal with their accusers. Some flee to “rehab” centres for so-called sexual addiction, while locally, silence and then denial seem to be the preferred route.

Following the unsuccessful trial, Kuzwayo felt she had no choice but to go into exile – again  -where she and her mother were embraced by an empathic community simply not available in her own country. She wasn’t only blamed by Zuma disciples. The media here didn’t treat her much better.

In court, too, the defense implied that a five-year old girl could be implicated in her own rape. What does that say about the society we live in? Please don’t tell me that lawyers are compelled to do “everything” they can to defend their client. There are limits.

That is truly the state of the world we live in today. Women have to explain why and how something happened, what they were wearing and why they were at a certain place at a certain time.

The onus is still on women to explain why and how something happened, what they were wearing and why they were at a certain place at a certain time.

I was recently walking with a young woman when an elderly man made a remark that only she understood. But she retorted in English so that everyone could get her meaning: “Wow, you could be my grandfather. Would you speak like that to your granddaughter?”

I hope he will now think twice about commenting that glibly, and that publicly, in future.

Importantly, her approach also showed there is a new awareness among millenials. They are willing to take the battle on, and to speak their minds.

That is why #MeToo has had such impact, and that is why this book will have relevance for years to come. It speaks about how power relationships are used at the cost of the vulnerable. And that is what Kuzwayo was in so many ways.

Not only did she regard Zuma as an “elderly uncle”. He knew and had honoured her father,  and could tell her stories about the man who “Khwezi” had lost too soon in her young life. She needed that first-hand knowledge about her dad. And so it was a matter of trust that was shattered in several ways too tough to disregard.

It is true, however, that this is also how she found the strength. It was enough. It didn’t matter who had done what to her. This would be the last time. But the other truth is that her “enough” would also shatter what was left of her life.

Meanwhile, the man who she accused of violating her, took a shower.