Play review: #JustMen – not just a play

 In Mental Health, Relationships, Trauma

#JustMen directed by Heinrich Reisenhofer and featuring Johan Baird, Loukmaan Adams, Sherman Pharo and Thando Doni at the Baxter Theatre 13-30 June 2018 (but hopefully reviving very soon).

As with all our reviews, this is very much a personal one. Also, we felt this production deserved a review because its very reason for being is life righting. As such, it is important to record that this extremely powerful production touched me deeply, calling out as it does any violence against women and children.

Here’s why it hits home. In #JustMen, each of us will find echoes of our own lives, either as men or women, in what we hear. And what we hear, and very much feel, is a series of dramatised personal testimonies by four heterosexual, racially stratified men – white Afrikaaner x 1, black Xhosa x 1, brown Muslim x 1, brown gangster x 1. I’m not sure if gangster should have a capital G: add it if you want. These are, in any case, my artificial boxes, although the production makes something of them too. And also breaks them down.

That, of course, is the point of the title, because, at bottom, they are all just men. Indeed, the production was designed originally, perhaps optimistically, for male audiences only. That took a turn along the way, such that at the final performance we attended, it was probably 50/50 men and women. Audience notwithstanding, #JustMen is at pains to universalise the male gender’s role in the South African societal challenge, which is, of course, multi-faceted in the extreme. Witness, for me, the moment that moved me most: Sherman Pharo’s relating of the loss of his mother, we assume to long-term abuse-related injuries, when she was just 36.

Through this, just one tip of the twisted male psyche’s iceberg is revealed – the relationship between mothers and sons (a whole production waiting in the wings in itself). The point is that I have precious little in common with Sherman Pharo in terms of my life experience, but at that moment I had everything in common with him. That is the power of this production. It is, by the by, also the intended power of the Life Righting Collective’s work, #justsaying…

In both these contexts, if just one part of one story connects with you – and remember these are real stories told by the actual men still living those stories – then #JustMen has done its job. It has, one hopes, in doing so, shifted people – and more specifically men – to consider themselves differently and to stand up, as the production asks of them, to consider how they can contribute to changing the existing toxic dynamic.

Except that my partner and I – and we are both men – did not respond to the show’s call to men in the audience to actually, physically ‘stand up’ at the point in the play where we were asked bu one of the actors to do so. Why? On reflection, because there is, despite their very best intentions and the absolute correctness of the focus on heterosexual machismo and violence against women and children, as well as the mention of homophobia and corrective lesbian rape, something missing.

Firstly, two mentions of homophobia and its consequences (I stand corrected: it may have been a couple more) is not enough, for me, to acknowledge the LGBTI community’s intersection with straight male oppression. Secondly, the production missed a trick in not having at least one actual homosexual or even bisexual story to tell. You need ALL men on this crusade and I am not sure it is correct to assume that all gay men will automatically toe the non-misogynist or non-violent line in this debate: not all gay men are pacifist feminists. These things are not binary. So there was a layer missing, for both my partner and I – even though there were stories that connected viscerally with us.

Please don’t get me wrong. Gender-based violence is statistically more prevalent than homophobic rape or murder – and so requires the focus that this powerful and essential production bravely puts on it. It just isn’t, for me, 100% of the story.

 

NOTE 1: This production has already been to a variety of schools and communities, playing to all-male audiences, as well as precipitating an impressive Youth Day march against GBV, and intends very much to continue doing so, with the support of the City of Cape Town.

NOTE 2: It was suggested to me that I should write this review from MY place of hurt in relation to my own felt oppression; and I think I have touched on that – but to write that story in full is a whole essay or possibly long-form poem in itself: one that may yet appear on this website.

 

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