The Classical Theatre of the Oppressed
Adapting The Vagina Monologues in Malawi
When an all-female cast of seven staged The Vagina Monologues in Malawi in late 2020, it represented the third time the play—regarded to be so explicit in African culture—had been done in an African country. The staging was timely, as the country had been seeing a continued rise in cases of rape and sexual abuse. Produced by YDC Theatre in collaboration with Dikamawoko Arts, the production interrogated Augusto Boal’s idea of Theatre of the Oppressed as a means of practising for the revolution in response to gender-based violence.
The period of 16 Days of Activism, which is an annual international campaign for the elimination of violence against women, falls between end of November and early December every year and runs for ten days. According to Dikamawoko Arts’s director, Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera, “At the time, all media outlets in Malawi were reporting cases of gruesome accounts of rape and sexual abuse in different communities across the country, on a daily basis.” There had recently been a case reported of a man who raped three young women, one of a man who raped his prepubescent niece, one of a man who raped his neighbor’s six-month-old baby, and one where a man defiled his own daughter. These events triggered YDC Theatre and Dikamawoko Arts to step up and speak out through a production. They coveted a global voice that could resonate with the movement, deciding there was no one more apt than V (formerly known as Eve Ensler) and The Vagina Monologues, with V’s own experiences with rape and defilement.
About the production, Nkhonjera, who was also co-producer and director of the play, says: “We wanted an approach that would be in-your-face, unapologetic, and confrontational, yet engaging, expressive and empathetic.”
From a directorial point of view, the initial idea was to adapt The Vagina Monologues in full. However, taking into consideration Malawian culture, the time frame needed for the adaptation, and the country’s social climate at the time—with the rise in reported sexual abuse cases—the production ended up merely using the opening argument in The Vagina Monologues to set the tone of the production. The cast, who almost all had no prior knowledge of the play before rehearsals began, ended up devising different contemporary scenes of reported rape cases, such as the one where the father raped his own daughter with the full knowledge of the mother, the one where eight men raped a young woman at a university campus party, sex for grades, and several others.
Ellastas Msiska, part of the cast, at first had doubts about being part of the project due to her beliefs. “The first day of rehearsals,” she says, “I could see disapproval on almost every actor’s face because of the title and its storyline.” The cast was given assignments to generate reflections and solutions based on the active scenarios, which were easily crafted into scenes.
“The experimental part was funny at the same time,” Msiska shares, “because we had to demonstrate some things we are used to doing in private, like urinating.” And while at first rehearsals were a bit embarrassing, the cast adapted and, as Msiska enlightens me, “managed to flow beautifully with it all.” Similar to how the original monologues in the play were adapted from interviews V did, the cast created their own narratives, based on a traditional performance style.
“Girls and women live in fear, in restrictions, and with numerous traumas from incidences of rape and sexual abuse,” Nkhonjera says. The choice to move ahead with an all-female cast would offer an empathetic lens.
“We decided on a full female cast by default, not by design,” Nkhonjera clarifies. “We started rehearsing The Vagina Monologues at the same time as two other productions. At the first rehearsal, the performers who availed themselves were the actresses, and we slowly liked the look of having seven actresses on stage speaking about the ills of rape and sexual abuse on girls and women.” Men and boys get raped and sexually abuse too, but in most cases, and in our patriarchal and chauvinistic societies, women and girls suffer the brunt of these inhumane acts. And most of the time, because of the perpetrated culture of silence, women have no platform for redress of such problems, no chance to address them, and no hope for an end to the scourge of rape.
“Girls and women live in fear, in restrictions, and with numerous traumas from incidences of rape and sexual abuse,” Nkhonjera says. The choice to move ahead with an all-female cast would offer an empathetic lens, and, according to Nkhonjera, “it turned out marvellously.”
The team started the process with a workshop to ensure the cast was aware of the subject matter and arguments within the production. Being respectful of everyone’s personal experiences or lack thereof, the creative team solicited the actresses’ views and opinions, themselves being young ladies living in patriarchal societies. “Considering that our cast comprised actresses who are young, and without a recognizable voice in the theatre world and in society,” Nkhonjera shares, “we prepared them to have mental strength, to invest their spirit in the production, and to present the play without fear or any sort of trepidation”
About those early days, Lisa Machilika, the youngest of the cast members, says: “Looking at the script, it was really heavy for me to jump in.” She had just turned eighteen years old and originally didn’t want to be part of the production. “But on a second thought,” she shares, “I texted my director, ‘I think I can do this, I have to be part of the cause because one day it might be me or someone close to me in similar shoes.’” Being involved in the crafting process of the production was new for Machilika, who was used to just being an actor on stage. “But this one was different.” she says, “I was a director at the same time as a performer.”
Carolyn Chisi, who mostly plays masculine roles in the show, supports Machilika’s comments: “The making was fun. I loved it because I was bold enough to craft visuals from given symbolism, which needs to come out with authenticity so that the audience feels the depth/climax of the activity happening in each scene.” When it came to performing the gender-based violence and rape, she says: “We had to input our emotions and the right energy to deliver what the audience needed to capture.”
Through the workshop and the devising process, the director encouraged the actresses to develop their own ways of speaking out, and each one embraced their roles with determination.
Rape is a gruesome thing to imagine, and absolutely abhorrent in action. All the actresses were encouraged to run visuals of reported cases of rape and imagine the worst that could happen. They were challenged to take up the mantle and become champions of the fight against rape and sexual abuse. They were encouraged to have the mettle to stand up and speak out to break the culture of silence. Through the workshop and the devising process, the director encouraged the actresses to develop their own ways of speaking out, and each one embraced their roles with determination. The driving factor was: If you don’t speak out against the ills you face, nobody will do it for you.
The most interesting part for me as an audience member was how this classic adaption was crafted with Boal’s techniques. Part of Theatre of the Oppressed is Forum Theatre, which encourages audience interaction and allows for an exploration of different options for dealing with problems or issues. A production that uses Forum Theatre requires much interactive workshops. “We trained the actresses to be on their toes, and to take any feedback from the audience in stride, incorporating what made sense into the production, even if it meant going off-script for a while,” says Nkhonjera. “Forum Theatre works very well for the objective of soliciting immediate reactions from the audience, which help to shape the production. This helps with authenticity and reliability of the production.”
The text was fused with some traditional elements, such as songs, drums, reenactments of genital mutilation, and more. In Malawi, due to some traditional beliefs, there are men who rape infants—for riches, protection against disease, and other nonsensical beliefs. “By using traditional elements, we brought the story to the ground, to the grassroots,” Nkhonjera explains. “This helped to identify those traditional symbols and elements in our Forum Theatre.”
The style also encouraged the audience to participate. “Because of the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter in the play, it was inevitable that they would have opinions and criticisms or contributions to the presented material,” Nkhonjera articulates. “Because of this, it was fairly easy for the actors to pause the production and lobby audience reactions at strategic points in the course of the production.” By the second performance, audience participation brought about very enriching discourse. Audiences weighed in with their opinions and suggestions on how the play could be more effective in delivering the message of the fight against rape and sexual abuse, some of which was then incorporated into the production.
As Nkhonjera explains, in his twenty years in the theatre industry, most theatre practitioners have avoided Boal’stechniques. “I believe that most Malawian theatre practitioners would refrain from using Forum Theatre,” he says, “because it requires the production to have performers who are free enough and talented enough to absorb new information and ably integrate it into the production without losing the plot.” He believes some performers are only good at committing a script to memory then regurgitating it on the stage, but acknowledges that can’t work in Forum Theatre. “To avoid such problems,” he says, “many practitioners stay away from Theatre of the Oppressed.”
The driving factor was: If you don’t speak out against the ills you face, nobody will do it for you.
The Forum and Performance
The first performance of The Vagina Monologues was at Golden Peacock Hotel in the city of Blantyre, and the audience was largely female, with a few males. The feedback, interjections, and opinions from the audience during this performance were incorporated into the production. The second performance was at HS Winehouse, and the patronage was more balanced between men and women. The most vocal of the two were the men, who were touched by the upfront messaging and performance from the seven actresses. At HS Winehouse, the responses mostly came in the post-show focus group discussions rather than during the performance. Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed works very well for the objective of beseeching instant feedbacks from the audience. This helps with realism and reliability of the production.
The approach was what Nkhonjera wanted: in-your-face, unapologetic, and confrontational, yet engaging, expressive, and empathetic. However the production also got several remonstrations from the Censorship Board demanding that the title change because the word “vagina” is “vulgar.” Nkhonjera did not agree, asking, “Why does it become a vulgar word only when the women are fighting back to stop a human evil, and not when the evil is taking place? Is it a vulgar word when men are raping a woman? What’s more vulgar, the word or the act of rape?”
The team decided not to change the title. “Culturally, Malawians are outwardly prudish, and many people took exception to the title of the play,” Nkhonjera argues. “But it’s just a title with mere facts and it is better mentioning it than to be a rapist.” However, the poster, which featured a G-string, also caused some consternation amongst particular groups of people, and on that they decided to change the poster.
YDC and Dikamawoko Arts plan to take the production of The Vagina Monologues on tour to secondary schools and as many other communities as possible across Malawi. For communication purposes, where they cannot perform the play in English, the play will be translated into relevant local languages like Chichewa, Chitumbuka, and other indigenous languages. “The translation will be respectful of traditional life and culture of the people so as not to ruffle any feathers or cause any unnecessary blocks in the message transfer,” Nkhonjera explains.
Currently, there is a call for review of the Malawi constitution to evaluate the penalties that come with crimes such as rape and gender-based violence. This adaptation of The Vagina Monologues by YDC and Dikamawoko Arts is one of the few artistic initiatives that can reach out to all people in the country to speak out against sexual abuse, rallying communities to work together towards this goal.
Eve Kaipa, Lisa Machilika, Dalitso Ndana Chazuka, Deborah Butao, Florence Magombo, Carol Chisi, and Ella Ellastas Msiska in The Vagina Monologues, produced by YDC Theatre in collaboration with Dikamawoko Arts. Director: Tawong Taddja Nkhonjera. Co-director: Mwai Wiseman Kadzandira. Set designer: Jack Musumba. Sound designers: Yankho Kumwenda and Nicholas Mbuya Ba Thombozi. Photo Credit: Bright Africa Makina.