A Conversation with Rehane Abrahams

Rehane Abrahams is an award-winning performer and theatre-maker. She is currently performing in Amee Lekas’ debut production, Die Dans van die Watermeid, at the Baxter Theatre. As a performer, her work has successfully spanned a multitude of genres and mediums. She is also the co-founder of The MotherTongue Project which is a collective of women artists, activists, academics and practitioners committed to personal and social transformation through participatory theatre and integrated arts methodologies. Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I think it was always there. I spent a lot of time in my own fantasy world. I spent a lot of time feeling big emotions that were too intense to feel publicly so I had to go round the back of the house and get carried away by whatever emotions were going on in me. I started writing stories as soon as I could write. Performing also happened really early. The moment it kind of gelled and became real, I was quite young and my parents took me to TheEaonin Athlone to watch my uncle and aunt, who at the time were professional actors based in Joburg inAdam Small’sJoanie Galant. It was about forced removals from District Six. I remember, at that very young age, feeling quite exposed in a room full of people sharing such intense emotions. It was shocking for me that was happening and it was also wonderful that political issues could be addresses in this really felt way. I remember feeling jealous and somewhat envious that it wasn’t me on that stage.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

What was it that attracted you to this production?

Particularly the story of Die Watermeid. I just recently finished a dissertation called Reflections on a Body of Work: Water. My previous body of work has been based on the Indian ocean and the female body and figures of liquidity, I suppose. I spent a few years in Java learning dances of the goddess of the South Sea. The water and figures of water, have been with me for a few long time, almost haunting me. My mother told me about Die Watermeid in about 2010 or 2011 and since that time, I’ve been researching it and kind of drawn to it and writing around it and feeling it on the edges of my consciousness. Just before I started working on this production, I was on a TV series which was called The Real People.It’s an examination of Khoi history and culture and we went up to a place called Campbell, to aGriquacommunity and people enacted the ritual of the water maid in front of us. It’s a rite of passage for young women and they told us legends of the water serpent and the women in the water and the connection with female sexuality and rivers and how in Griqua tradition, in Campbell particularly, the older women are, with the water, custodians of young girl’s burgeoning sexuality. They are protective of it and they have an awareness of it and the water speaks back to them about the girl and what has been happening in her life. Subconsciously it all poured together. This production was a culmination of it. WhenJason[Jacobs] asked me to do the reading, he met me at Theatre Arts Admin Collective where I was inWynne Bredenkamp’sproduction Creature where I was playing a sea creature. It just kind of was a flow, if you will. It was a flow that went into the story and I love how that works with creativity and with making, that power of subconscious doors and connecting together.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

I’m glad that you mentioned Wynne’s piece because that was my first encounter with your work. Do you feel like suddenly maybe these are the stories you are meant to be telling?

No. I’ve been telling them for a long time. The water maiden in this story is not as mythical. Some people have told me that they do sense some presence but she is more alluded to. The story is quite rooted in ordinary reality. It is almost like Tennessee Williams…the character that I play in a psychological reality. She is not really mythic. She is cut off from all of that and then suppresses it and then when it does break through, it is quite shattering. It could be her own subconscious, her own past, her own secrets, collective consciousness, collective secrets, intergenerational trauma, it could be a vast number of things that she’s suppressed and cut off from. I really enjoyed Amee’s feedback into the character. I said that there’s this thing that these water figures sometimes have complex sexualities, that they can really be quite rapacious sexually.They have this reputation and she didn’t feel that the characters were that because she didn’t feel that they had sexuality because they were fish from the waist down and so there was no genitals which I thought was interesting.It’s a very interesting character whether there is no sexuality or where there is rapaciousness there is always an extreme in some form.

What was the process like working with Amee Lekas on her debut play? 

There was a lot of refinement of the script and of trying to find out what is it trying to say and are we getting it right? How can we make the meaning most clear? That was done in collaboration with her. Ultimately, she has a very rare energy about her. It’s been wonderful to work on this with Amee in her debut work. It’s been wonderful to give voice to it and to have her feedback and her perceptions.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

What I find quite interesting is that you have travelled quite extensively with your work. What was the decision around going overseas?

The most recent process of going overseas started in 2000 when I wrote What the Water Gave Me. The core of that was a Javanese story that my grandmother told me. I didn’t know it was Javanese or where it was from. I didn’t know any of the story’s history.Subconsciously or by the strange confluence of story and human, the story drew to Java. I had no intention of going there. I wanted to go to Europe and I ended up living in Java and finding that story and finding its birth place and finding the different variants. I suppose that was an ancestral journey that took me there. The story drew me there. Of course I didn’t just go there for the story, I didn’t know I was going there. I went there to train. I trained in classical Javanese dance which was a wonderful education for my body. I trained in Javanese rasa aesthetics. It’s not spoken as in Indian rasa aesthetics where it is spoken, formulated training, it is that refinement of sense. I saw incredible performance in temples, in streets, in theatres in Bali and Java. It was very enriching and very grounding. Also, the attitude towards artists and the kind of acceptance of artists as artists was very grounding.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

How do you feel that journey has lent itself to your work?

I suppose it makes me feel a lot less insecure about my place in the world. I don’t feel like I am missing out. I don’t feel like I am anywhere that I shouldn’t be. I know that this is the choice to express, to be in South Africa now and to express the new voices coming through and to be part of this very exciting new wave of theatre and film and performance-making is exactly where I need to be. It’s exactly where I need to be. I don’t feel challenged, the ground beneath my feet is not shifting. I think a lot of my displacement was because of my family’s history that just kind of ended. It ended abruptly with a moment of slavery and to go beyond that and to find cultural roots that defined us, cultural roots in my body in a very ancient dance form and a very ancient performance form is completely grounding. I know where that part of my family is from and then the journey to the Khoisan and Khoikhoi culture which is more on my motherline to slowly find out, now that I’m back, with things likeDie Dans van die Watermeid to find those stories, it just grounds me into the soil here even more firmly. I feel pretty solid which I didn’t before.

What I think is so remarkable about your career is that as a performer you’ve been able to shift between a multitude of genres and mediums. It seems to be that you are not allowing the industry to box you in. How do you maintain that?

I’ve resisted being typecast and going away and redefining myself and finding myself on my own terms has helped with that. It might not have been easy if I had stayed but then I notice that people tend to do that quite easily. They look at the current phase of work that I am making and some of the work that I have made that deals particularly with women’s issues and they are like, “Ok, Rehane makes feminist work.” Then I am afraid that might be a….but then I think, “How could it?” Where are the borders and the boundaries of looking at women’s lives and exploring their lives from each other?

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

Jumping off of that, I wanted to ask you about The MotherTongue Project. What was the catalyst that sparked you to create this platform?

When I left university, which was still during Apartheid, I knew that I was crazy and I knew that it wasn’t my fault. I knew that I was intergenerationally crazy and that a lot of people shared my crazy and that I would have to really reform, renew, interrogate and restore myself and that restoration could be shared. I did years of research on rites of passage and the theatres and the space where I could go through a rite of passage and how that would function for me and how that would function theatrically and I explored it for years and wrote around it for a very long time so by the time that MotherTongue came around, I was ready. The story just kind of came and flowed. Sara [Matchett] and I collaborated and she provided a container, she did the admin. She did all of that really important work to make the organisation. In the beginning I wanted MotherTongue to be a vehicle just for me and my work but with all the work that went into making it into an organisation, and we had written such a strong proposal, its manifesto and vision and mission was so strong and so cohesive and coherent that it would have been a terrible shame to just have it serve one person. And then it opened up to the point at the moment where it has served very many people and it continues to do so.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

I ask this question a lot but I feel like you are someone who is very informed on this subject so I’d love to know your opinion on the current state of theatre for women in South Africa?

I don’t really know. I don’t really think about the current state of theatre. I think it’s pretty good. There are a lot of fantastic, very creative people in the industry on all levels. There’sLara Footwho is here [at the Baxter.] There are new women coming through, Chuma [Sopatela] is theStandard Bank Young Artistfor Performance Art which is absolutely wonderful. It’s quite good….in theatre.

What advice would you have for young performers?

Write your own role. Put your plays on yourself and explore and express everything that you possibly need, could and want to explore and express. That is what I’d suggest to do instead of waiting for things to arrive because things don’t. Things have a tendency not to just arrive.

Is there anything still on your career bucket list?

At the moment, I am quite dedicated to a perfection of my craft. Not that it will ever be perfect but I enjoy emotional athleticism and the emotional athleticism that I am feeling now as I become older. I am enjoying my physical strength and how robust I am as an actress and I would like to test the boundaries of that and see the extent to which my expression can lead.  That is what I am interested in. I wish I could see it as a career. That would mean I have a very clear mapped out trajectory but I don’t. I kind of just have plans for the next few years or set out intentions for the next few years. I feel quite strongly about developing craft and skill.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

Chuma Sopotela, Fansiwa Yisa, Koleka Putuma, Lara Foot, Lara Bye, Caroline Calburn for her sheer tenacity.Jennie Reznekin terms of being an athlete and a crafts person. I also have to mentionAntoinette Kellerman. I have adored her since forever. She is the real deal.


You can catch Rehane in Die Dans van die Watermeid at the Baxter Theatre until November 25th. For tickets, click here.

For more information on The MotherTongue Project, please click here.

Special thanks to Fahiem Stellenboom, Hannah Baker and Chris de Beer.

All photos were taken by Chris de Beer at the Baxter Theatre on November 8th 2017.

Sarafina Magazine and Chris de Beer maintain copyrights over all images. For usage or inquires please contact us.

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