MOXIE Chats to … Sonia Radebe

MOXIE: When did the idea for Dori(s) come to you?

Sonia Radebe: So it was after I received an email stating that I am the 3rd recipient of Sophie Mgcina Emerging Voice Award sponsored by the Market Theatre during the Naledi Theatre awards. My husband and I researched who Sophie Mgcina was and we found her lyrics of “Madam Please” which talks about the relationship between the maid and the madam. The words of the song moved me, I even decided to quote them during my speech as I received the award. People thought I had written it until I explained that they were lyrics. Just an example of some of the lines…

“…Before you shout about your broken plates, ask me what my family at. Before you laugh at your servant’s English, try and speak to him in his Zulu language…”

You will also notice that in the title of the work the letter (s) has brackets. That is why it is written as “When Dori(s) Takes Her Place”. During my research I came across the term “dori” which is a derogatory term used in the UK to describe a women who is worthless. This speaks to some of the treatment maids often get from their madam across all races.

M: How long did it take to conceptualize and choreograph the show?

SR: It took me about four months to conceptualise the work, as I was also in the creation process of another piece entitled “SABELA”-respond. I took three weeks in the rehearsal room. I am fascinated by constantly finding ways to carry my family history and that of others through what I do best. It is a fundamental part of most of my works.

M: What was the inspiration behind Dori(s)?

SR: The work is a response to Sophie Mgcina’s lyrics and also a celebration of the women that raised me, who were both were maids. My grandmother and my mum’s older sister, Doris. My mum’s older sister took me to work during school holidays and I used to observe how much respect, which became fear, she had when she spoke to her madam, who was always a white woman. The tone of voice the madam used when speaking to my mum almost insinuated that she didn’t understand the instruction. Doris technically ran the madam’s household for many years, at least three generations.

M: Why did you feel like this story needed to be told?

SR: I had conversations with my neighbours who also do the same kind of work. We all know them. They buy from the same supermarkets as us, we walk the same parks as them. Some call themselves maids, helpers, girly. They constantly talk about their shared experience in these homes with different families from Jewish to Italian, from how much to how little they pay, from family disputes to overseas weekend getaways, family wills and divorces. In one way or another, the helpers are part of that family structure. Images of helpers sitting at a separate table than that of the whole family during family outings show how they are perceived in their work space. The inhuman games that circulate on social media of good helpers made to drink urine in the name of playing a game, goes to show how far we still have to go as humans. Through “When Dori (s) takes her place” I wanted to honor and celebrate women who are helpers or maids.

M: You made use of blankets (tjali-itshali) as the main props for the show, why was this?

SR: I was looking for an item that reminded me of home. This particular item speaks to both the young and old. The blanket has become a symbolical item in the African culture and is used in different stages of life. For the child after birth, for umakoti (the bride) to cover her shoulders, for the senior women in the family who wear it around their waist, and during death, to cover the person who has passed on. It symbolizes something for different people. It also somehow screamed for existence in my piece. I realized this during the creation process when we dedicated an entire morning just for experimenting with the blanket. We came up with images of huts in a homestead, endless carpet with patches of brown, blue, orange and green, traditional attire, a wedding gown, pillars, a city etc. Eventually, Itshali became a very integral part of the piece

M: What was the significance of having the dancers rolling around on wheels at the end?

SR: So I chose to use a hover board because I wanted (Dori(s) to take flight, almost in a fantasy way. It also created a feeling of ‘an out of this world’ experience. The moments and imagery used in the dance piece are a buildup to celebrating Doris.

M: How did you decide on the music for the show?

SR: The music element in the show was a very clear one. I approached my husband Nhlanhla Mahlangu who is a composer, amongst other things, to create the musical feel for the work because I respect his choices. It was almost an emotional need for me because he creates amazing works for dance companies, galleries and corporate clients and yet he has never created music for any of my works. (Laughs) I also invited Waldo Alexandra, whom I met at ‘The Centre for the Less Good Idea’, as I wanted a classical element. And then Yogin Sullephen has done a couple of projects with my husband and I, so it only made sense to continue working with him. I believe in continuous collaborations.

M: How do you think the performances went?

SR: Well the feedback from the audience was great. They responded very positively to the work. Adriene Sichel said “This is the best dance theatre work I have seen this year”.

M: Would you like to take the show on the road?

SR: Yes, I would like the work to travel because it is a piece that speaks to social change, humanity and women issues.  It instills a positive image of a black women in our society today.

M: Future plans?

SR: I am in the process of choreographing my first musical “Tsotsi: The Musical” which is an adaptation of Athol Fugard’s book Tsotsi. After that I have a tour to Germany with a different production. I’ll also be continuing my sessional lecturing at the Wits Drama Department.


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