In Search of Bessie Head
How we think about and engage with the lives and contributions of women activists and intellectuals matters. How we choose to historicise and imagine women in public memory matters, especially in the year that we celebrate a number of milestones in women’s history.
It is the anniversary of the African (then known as Bantu) Women’s Anti-Pass Campaign, held between 1912-1918. Cissie Gool founded the National Liberation League and became its first president in 1936. The Women’s March which saw 20 000 women march strong against the pass system, including Dorothy Nyembe, Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Annie Silinga and Francis Baard (just to name a few), happened six decades ago in 1956.
The National Arts Festival programme boasted three separate plays that centered on the lives of three incredible political actors and intellectuals: anti-apartheid activist Ruth First (Ruth First: 117 Days directed by Marcel Meyer), writer Bessie Head (As Ever, Bessie directed by Bobbie Fitchen) and political activist Albertina Sisulu (OoMaSisulu directed by Warona Seane).
Being that my academic focus is on women intellectuals from Africa and the diaspora, I was interested to see how the women central to these respective pieces would be publicly memorialised on stage. After all, theatre has the ability to bring to life the experiences and experiencing of the people involved in it, in a way far more compelling than most academic reviews.
All the performers worked damn hard. The set design of each piece was effortless and appropriate. Caged props and images of detained anti-apartheid stalwarts in Ruth First gestured to the strictures and containment of the apartheid regime.
Placeless but placed, the set of OoMaSisulu balanced minimal props with a swaying flock of Origami paper boats, seemingly suspended in mid air.
In As Ever, Bessie, the continual setting of the busy, buzzing of the airport lounge for a stressed, anxious “Bessie” who had never left Africa, seamlessly invoked Bessie Head’s lifelong grappling with ideas of statelessness, transience, limbo and transitionality.
Yet, whilst making visible the lives and underlying struggles of these women (whom are often unknown, if not underappreciated or completely glazed over), an issue I constantly chew on in my own research emerged: Are these works interested in grappling with these stories because they are women or because they did and said incredible things and being a woman enabled some particularly rich ideas? How were these depictions enriching the audience’s sense of their intellectual and political contributions and engaging their respective legacies?
Each piece, on some level, strained to give me a sense of the people themselves, let alone their actual ideas. I suspect it was the treatment of biography that seemed to contain the personalities, seemed to constrain potential feelings of empathy. Narrated by each protagonist was origins, parentage, family life, schooling experience, love interest, career, contributions to anti-apartheid struggle or discourse, trauma and tragedy, ending in direct or indirect depictions of their (slightly predictable) triumph over tragedy and overarching heroism.
OoMaSisulu gave the richest character development. Perhaps because three performers (Thembi Mtshali-Jones, Indalo Stofile and Chuma Sopotela) played Albertina Sisulu at various points in her life. Perhaps because I blushed when Walter and Albertina started flirting. It was in the sweet intimacies – when people do the stuff of life by loving, laughing, teasing and gossiping – that made this depiction compelling. Though, once those coy glances give way to the grand narrative of liberation, the linear rhythm of traditional biography re-established the slow swinging pendulum of predictability.
In the case of Ruth First (performed by Jackie Rens), I saw the imagined, public Ruth First: stylish, contained, steadfast, determined and found myself longing for the possibility of re-animating the ideas and work of Ruth First through a depiction of her beyond biographical detail.
In As Ever, Bessie, Denise Newman had Head’s likeness aesthetically and emotionally. Her co-star Ntombi Makhutshi (playing Caroline Nandi Habib, a Kenyan-based South African doctor on her way to visit her daughter), plays a countervailing force who attempts to assist and settle a disorientated, prickly Bessie in the bustling of airport passengers and intercom announcements.
Whilst the stranger encounter allowed for them to struggle with and alongside one another, Bessie often speaking past Caroline but eventually finding some common ground in mutual pains, the dialogue had anticipated crescendos and scripted, forced revelations. Though one can see how strangers can come to share private thoughts and have moments of intimacy, too often it felt as though they had to make those moments arise for the sake of the intention of the play. Through some of the scripting, direction or performer interactions, the glare of it being constructed made one focus on it as a theatre production, versus being engaged in the unfolding of lives.
Academically, I have been interested in the intellectual contributions of Bessie Head. Her work can shift from intensely compelling, hurricane-like to the slow mirage of moment dripping in sweat, hand shading our squinting eyes. Deeply engaged in the philosophical and continually grappling with questions of power that underpin racial, sexual, gendered and national conflicts, Head is one of South Africa’s heavyweights that inhabited and disrupted the intellectual traditions of her time.
Head wrote seven published novels, one social history of the village Serowe (which was her home for most of the 20 odd years spent in Botswana), contributed to several local and international newspapers and magazines and was a supreme letter-writer (keeping decade-long and multiple correspondences). Head could invoke the richness and timeless majesty of the mundane, day-to-day (in the tradition she attributed to Bertolt Brecht). Then, a line later, pull the plug and suck you down a nightmarish spiral of supernatural beings and boundless realities.
Bearing this in mind, a sense of dread stilled me as I read the chosen introductory lines in the programme:
“I was born on the 6th July, 1937 in the Pietermaritzburg Mental Hospital in South Africa. The reason for my peculiar birthplace was that my mother was white, and she had acquired me from a black man. She was judged insane, and committed to the mental hospital while pregnant.” – Bessie Head
The description continued: “The play is not a critique of Bessie Head’s writing but a nuanced and insightful understanding of “the demons and scars” that drove her to write so profoundly…As her neurosis spirals into a series of emotional outbursts, a stranger tries to assist her. This chance meeting unravels the emotional turmoil that Bessie lives with. She herself said her life had been made up of ‘shattered little pieces’. Through this transient encounter, Bessie shares her fears, her desires, and her delights, which is emotionally taxing but transformative.”
Throughout my research on Head, the story of her origins seemed to enthral those determined to pin down her neurosis or make sense of the uncontainable elements of her work. In her book on Head’s work, Desire Lewis wrote that, “her imaginative vision is [often] defined primarily as a reproductive response to known worlds, rather than a creative envisioning of unknown ones.”
This isn’t to say that her grappling with the facts of her origins did not fundamentally shape her mental health. The concern is rather, will we allow ourselves to look at the nature of her ideas in relation to her biography, take seriously her “creative envisioning of unknown [worlds]”?. More so, is the allowance ever made for black people, for black women?
OoMaSisulu and Ruth First are largely based on autobiographical and biographical adaptations, while As Ever, Bessie draws from a biography by Gillian Eilerstein and Head’s own work. Are these pieces part of the trend of “reprinting” biographies and autobiographies on stage? And if so, should it matter?
After an interview with the director of As Ever, Bessie, Bobbi Fitchen, my initial concerns were reconfigured. Firstly, Fitchen explained that bringing Head to the stage, in the hopes that audiences might feel compelled to go and read Head’s work for themselves, is of extreme importance when we consider that Head’s texts do not populate bookshelves nowadays.
Secondly, like any piece grappling with the life of a controversial, inspiring person with a meaty oeuvre, one can never represent them wholly or capture all the multiplicities of their ideas and experiences. Very aware of Head’s biography, having met her, having engaged with her colleagues, having read her books, Fitchen explained that trying to do a Bessie piece was always going to be a difficult task. Fitchen stated that somehow someone (who encountered Head) always had different takes on her and all had a “Bessie story” to tell. As such, she explained that, “I am committed to the process of trying to be faithful to some small part of Bessie.”
Being that the piece is in its infancy, Fitchen believed that the production continues to be in-the-making with her script and her performers. She shared her commitment to continually working the piece as she sees it in action and as the performers settle into the imagined worlds. “We are on a path and have to think on our feet,” she said.
At times, dialogue felt like lines being delivered. Much of these moments occurred when direct quotes from Head’s letters and essays were used as the lines of the Bessie character. Fitchen explained that Head, in part as a product of British missionary education, spoke in what we might consider archaic, highbrow language. Fitchen also said that the difficulty with Bessie was trying to portray her complex character. “Bessie struggled in her daily life for control and stability. She suffered with mental illness that made daily exchanges and activities extremely tense and difficult. She was paranoid and often reacted harshly to seemingly small matters.”
As such, Fitchen said, “It was with her writing that she had a sense of control and reflection. She was meticulous about the organisation of her writing documents and letters.” Whilst Head clearly exhibits when she is going through emotional turmoil in her letters, she is considered, self-reflexive and organised. “That is why I quote that writing. Her writing was her ‘happy place’ and in many ways allowed for her to be most articulate about her ideas. That is the Bessie I wanted to share and bring to life.”
The legacies of people transcend biographical facts when we commit to navigating these facts in relation to what they said, how they said it and make the empathetic leap to consider why they said it. Thought produced by women, particularly black women, is too often either relegated to the particular and therefore contra to the universal (i.e. the niching of Gender/Women Studies), “biographied” and in the process banalising their intellectual validity, or ignored entirely. As Patricia Hill Collins put it, what is systematically denied is that, “Black women intellectuals have laid a vital analytical foundation for a distinctive standpoint on self, community, and society”.
To reappropriate the title of one of Head’s essays, the National Arts Festival and the pieces described were attempting to “search for historical continuity and roots”. In so doing, these theatrical endeavours need to be held to account for the ways they choose to imagine people and their legacies. As the drumming of narrative styles of liberation historiography becomes less resounding with the contemporary need to imagine political and intellectual genealogies, the imaginative needs to help us inform and re-form public imaginings of histories. Theatre is central to that political imperative.