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Memoirs of a ‘Rose’

By Obett Motaung

With theatre pieces highlighting the complexities of womanhood still being a scarce commodity, Rose stands out.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of feminist icon and human rights activist Charlotte Maxeke, and it is fitting that Rose, a hard-hitting feminist drama, found its way to the Market Theatre earlier this year.

Rose, named after its protagonist, first premiered in 1999 at the Royal National Theatre and was created by the much-celebrated Martin Sherman. This version was directed by award-winning director, Malcom Purkey in which the protagonist is the extraordinary actress, Camilla Waldman. The 2021 production made its Market Theatre debut on 23 April  and played live until 16 May.

Rose tells her story of survival by beginning in 1920 in a small Russian village. Her will to live saw her survive Warsaw’s ghettoes and finally, a journey to freedom on a ship called the Exodus. Her life in America plays out across the years and several cities as the play unfolds, with Rose recalling heady nights in Miami, a myriad of husbands and lovers across Arizona and Atlantic City, and deeply-felt confessions that leave the audience moved.

Camilla Waldman in Rose, created by Martin Sherman at the Market Theatre

Waldman’s portrayal of a feisty Jewish woman is a moving reminder of some of the horrific events that shaped twentieth century thinking and reality. Transformed into a little old lady, Waldman captures our attention for a full two hours with her stories of beauty and pain, trying to make sense of the crippling effects of the Holocaust and what it is like to live with the history of the Jewish nation on one’s shoulders. Waldman, confined to a bench, encapsulates us with charm. We scream softly with her, we cry in sadness with her, and we laugh in hope with her. Waldman’s performance is remarkably haunting and lives on in your mind long after the curtain call.

The play resonates strongly with our current context as it echoes our own stories of continuing racial tensions and notions of displacement that exist in contemporary SA. The arts industry, particularly theatre, has always been good at championing the causes of the oppressed and marginalised – South African plays emerged during the apartheid years which focussed on protest theatre as a way of highlighting injustice. In recent years, playwrights such as Neil Coppen, Mike van Graan and many others have used theatre as a vehicle to deal with social ills and corruption within our society.

Camilla Waldman in Rose, created by Martin Sherman at the Market Theatre

Theatre and live performance in SA have faced serious challenges in terms of audience development, and the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has exacerbated the problem. Theatre is an artistic medium that has a magical way of critically reflecting on human experience – it reminds us that, at times, we need to use our hearts more and to be more empathetic. Rose illustrates the power of theatre to delve into our social consciousness.

Camilla Waldman in Rose, created by Martin Sherman at the Market Theatre

Arguably, not many artistic works celebrate women in a critical and nuanced manner beyond the hashtags of Mother’s Day and Women’s Day, thus it is important that contributions by and about women are given a wider platform. The fact that Rose dares to face life with such vigour and gusto and that she is willing to live her life on her own terms is demonstrated strongly in the play.

I argue that theatre pieces that interrogate the various multi-faceted issues faced by women remain under the radar. Plays such as Rose attempt to change this. Besides giving more platforms to such works, what is needed are more opportunities for female writers and directors to tell their own stories.

Women need to tell their own stories, with their own bold voices and have spaces which support women’s artistic work and interior lives. Instead of having a rose amongst thorns, let us rather aim to have more roses: wouldn’t that be a more beautiful picture?

Obett Motaung holds a Master of Arts in Film & Television from the University of the Witwatersrand. He also served as WITS SRC Academic & Policy officer. Motaung is the recipient of numerous awards for his filmmaking and his work has been recognised by the South Africa Music Awards 2019 where he served as adjudicator in the music video category. He was also recognised as one of the ‘100 shining young South Africansʼ by Inside Education and NYDA for his work in the Arts and Culture sector. He also serves as Naledi Theatre Award Judge.

This review was published as part of the Creative Feel My Art Radar project which was made possible by the National Arts Council’s PESP programme.

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