I recently watched the play “Waiting for the Barbarians” based on J. M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Babarians. Coetzee’s writing has often left me unsettled and disturbed therefore I didn’t watch the play as a fan of his work, but rather as a critic to see if the play would have the same effect on me as his books.
The story is about “the empire”— that does not have a definite geographical location in the novel— waiting for barbarians who are on the verge of attacking the last outpost. The relationship between the barbarians and the empire can be extended to current day South Africa where the question of safety, security and the need to identify who the real enemy is when we live in violent society such as ours. The story requires readers (and the audience who watch the play) to contemplate and question their idea of who are the real barbarians when we are in a context where the president is associated with the words “mshini wami” (give me my machine gun) or words “shoot to kill”, “kill the boer” are bandied about so easily and our newspapers are filled with images of police brutality and the insecurity of poor people where their only hope for justice is vigilantism.
The story of the empire and the barbarian, is centred around a Magistrate who is sympathetic to the cause of the barbarians. There are two women that are embroiled into the Magistrate’s life. In the play, these women are black. When I read the novel, I don’t remember racially classifying them (In fact, I don’t think Coetzee is overt about the racial profiling of any characters in the novel. We are left to assume that the Magistrate is white and the barbarians are black). In the play, these two women are highly sexualised and become part of the Magistrate’s quest for redemption in the saga that unfolds while the empire waits for the barbarians to attack.
While watching the play I became uneasy about how the only two women on the stage were merely sexualised and constantly gratifying the white man’s desires for sex. The one woman, Zoe, is a young prostitute and the other has no name and is described as ugly because she is one of the barbarians. I became unsettled that the only time these women seemed to have a voice or were on stage they were out for display, a spectacle of what tropes seem to exist for black women: the (ugly) victim or the sex slave (amongst others).
I found myself thinking about how easy it is to display women’s bodies simply as available for men’s sexual desire. I found myself thinking about Sara Baartman and how easily we forget about the history of black women’s bodies and what they mean for entertainment.
I realise that the role of theatre is to provoke the audience, but to what extent does the play’s portrayal of women perpetuate sexism and patriarchy? Chimamanda Adichie’s idea of the single story is relevant here. She raises the issue of how perceptions are formed by what we read and see about people around us. If we do not question these perceptions that are formed (consciously or unconsciously) we are in danger of forming a single story about people rather than considering other ways of being rather than the myopic view that is often left unchallenged. The representation of black women in whatever form (but particularly in this play) has implications for how we address the single story about black women and their place in their world.
A friend of mine (who happens to be black) often jests at how “black women are at the bottom of the food change, just above the animals”. One would say this isn’t entirely true given that there are many (black) women in powerful positions however, her experience as a successful black women in a male-dominated profession, she is still subject to the single story that people have of black women that this play also seems to perpetuate. This is not to suggest that the play isn’t worth seeing, however, something has to be said about the way in which art can have a role in making us think about the experience of women.