By Zandile Hlabangane, fourth-year BJourn student
The Rhodes University Drama Department has won a Student Theatre Festival award every year since 2014, making this their sixth year of victory.
The Student Theatre Festival is the student section of the National Arts Festival, where students from university drama departments across the country compete for prestigious awards. It is the only student theatre festival of its kind in the country, and each university showcases one play which is eligible for various award categories.
Most recently, Director Mmatumisang Motsitsi, won the Student Festival award for Best Original Work for the play Cult Clit (2017), and in 2018, Motsitsi took the award for Best Ensemble for the play Seeing Red. This year, SALT, written and directed by Noluthando Sibisi, was the winner of the award for Best Student Production.
SALT is devised as a recollection of truths and conjectures in response to the bizarre and tragic biblical story of Lot, his two daughters and the pillar of salt. Sibisi expressed that the play provides a modern reading on the biblical parable of Lot and his wife, who turned into a pillar of salt, and the incestuous rape that took place between him and his daughters in the book of Genesis: 19.
“The reason I decided to write SALT revolves around the many ways the story has been read and told, the moral dilemma it presents and the thematic concerns the story grapples with including rape, family, violence, misogyny, betrayal and religion. The reading I offered of Genesis: 19 is from the perspective of Lot’s daughters and wife with social commentary provided by the community within which they live,” explained Sibisi.
As someone who grew up in a church and saw the many ways in which the church has failed young women in society, Sibisi has grown weary and sceptical of how the institution documents female experiences and ultimately silences the female body.
With regards to the symbolism of salt, Sibisi said, “The image is one that strongly stands out for me. Salt is a mineral associated with seasoning, being a disinfectant and being a preservative. For me, it reflects the idea of purging, preserving, seasoning (making better) that dominates the story and is propagated through patriarchal norms and standards. In this narrative, the woman turns into salt, the woman defiles the body of the man, and the man is punished for treating other men like women,” she said.
Sibisi believes that the story portrayed in SALT is a common narrative in the religious community. “Misogyny, gender-based violence and the normalisation of patriarchal standards which ill-inform the average human being affect us all, and it was important for me to highlight the ways in which the religious community has been complicit.”
When asked about her team's Student Festival award for Best Production as well as the award for Best Director, Sibisi expressed, “I feel validated and affirmed. Like I am in the right place at the right time, doing the necessary things in the industry. It was just a thumbs up from all the forces that got me here to keep going, speaking, working on my craft and finding my voice and niche.”
According to Dr Heike Gehring, Head of the Drama Department at Rhodes University, the Department’s continued success at the Student Theatre Awards is largely due to the support it receives. “One of the main reasons why the Department is winning year after year is due to the amazing collective support given to students by academic and support staff,” she said.
The previous Rhodes University Drama Department Student Theatre Festival wins include the following:
2014 – Winner of Best Student Theatre Production for Solo
2015 – Winner of Overall Best Student Production for Void
Special Merit Certificates for design – Frankie van Straten
2016 – Winner of Best Production Award for Nyanga
Nominated for the Most Promising Playwright of the Year Award – Thembela Madliki
Winner of the Most Promising Director Award – Thembela Madliki
2017 – Winner of Best Original Work for Cult Clit
Best Stage Manager - Manoko Tlhako
2018 - Best Ensemble for Seeing Red