Bringing the world of Bessie Head to life

By MIKE LOEWE

We meet Bessie Head as a crazy-wild coloured aunty in an African print dress in an African airport transition hall throwing her stuff around, as she anxiously tries to strike a light for her smoke.

CONSOLATION: Bessie Head, left, played by Denise Newman, and Xhosa doctor Caroline Nandi Habib, played by Ntombi Makhutshi, find each other amid the alien bedlam of an African airport Picture: KAI FITCHEN
CONSOLATION: Bessie Head, left, played by Denise Newman, and Xhosa doctor Caroline Nandi Habib, played by Ntombi Makhutshi, find each other amid the alien bedlam of an African airport Picture: KAI FITCHEN

Head, strongly played by Denise Newman, is helped by kind doctor Caroline Nandi Habib, played by Ntombi Makhutshi, and this chance meeting is a springboard into both their troubled lives.

But this is the personal story of African literary giant Bessie Head, born in a mental hospital in Maritzburg, the only way the apartheid authorities could understand this cross-racial act of lovemaking.

Head, who died in 1986, wrote: because “my mother was white and she had acquired me from a black man she was judged insane and committed to the mental hospital while pregnant”.

Head’s life is one of exile to Botswana spawned by an ugly brew of social personal hurts, among them a cheating partner, shattering episodes of mental instability, and the ever-present grinding blade of 1960s and ’70s racial segregation.

In the play, she is leaving her beloved Africa for the first time, and despite her ticket to an international writing programme in Iowa being premised on international acknowledgement of her work, the dislocation is sparking a meltdown.

Newman delivers a towering performance but Makhutshi feels a touch muted, perhaps more than is demanded by her character’s role as a foil to Bessie’s creative and anxious storms.

In fact, Makhutshi’s moment of power did not come in the revelation of her excommunication as a result of her marriage to a Muslim man, but in an angry monologue delivered in full-on Xhosa. We don’t get an explanation but it was easy to simply feel the intensity.

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