The award-winning production, At Her Feet, returned to the Artscape Theatre this week to form part of the Women’s Humanity Arts Festival.
The production, about the experiences of four Muslim women in Cape Town whose lives are touched by 9/11 and by the honour killing of a Jordanian girl, first debuted at UCT in 2002, after which it had a few successful runs at the Baxter Theatre, travelled throughout South Africa, was staged in New York, London and Holland, and was nominated for, and won, numerous awards.
At her feet is the brainchild of Nadia Davids, written for her friend Quanita Adams, who performs in the production.
“We haven’t staged it since 2004, so it’s been 15 years since the production first went up, and 13 years since it has been shown in Cape Town.
“We are really happy to have a homecoming for it and introduce it to our original audience, as well as reconnect it with its new audience. It’s a lovely way of coming back,” said Ms Davids.
And not only is it a homecoming for the production, but for Ms Adams and Ms Davids as well.
While Ms Adams had returned from Johannesburg a few months ago, Ms Davids moved back from London recently.
The pair had been friends since they were teenagers, and often met at school debates where they were on opposing sides.
“We met again at university where we were in an English tutorial together and we became class friends.
“Then I was in drama school and so was Quanita and we worked together on various little things as students.”
Ms Davids said the idea for At Her Feet came to her post 9/11, when she and Ms Adams were quite alarmed at the way Muslim women were being portrayed in the media by images of suffering and being veiled and oppressed.
“It was different from our experience in Cape Town. Both of us were young at the time and eager to share the ways in which we have experienced the world and our views about it.
“When I wrote it, I thought Quanita is the one who has to perform in this play, and I wrote the play for her. She is an incredibly versatile performer.
“She’s got a rich sense of depth that is very rare.
“She’s also able to move between being funny and then telegraphing pain. That’s very hard to do – and she can sing.”
Ms Adams said when they got together at the rehearsal, she was still very moved by the piece.
“At one point I was in tears, and every morning we would meet in this freezing tiny rehearsal space at UCT and then she would just hand me this piece of paper and I will think ‘Oh My Word, this is amazing, I can’t wait to put these words into my body’.
“It was a formative time in my career. I think a lot the way I am as an actor now is because of consolidating in that rehearsal room because it taught me to unlock physical things from words on a page.”
The four characters in the play are all women from different backgrounds, hold strong beliefs around their faith, but could easily live on the same road. Sara, the narrator-figure, veers from a lyrical celebration of the colours and sacred geometries of the scarf, to a blunt assertion of disgust at the honour killing.
Then there’s Auntie Kariema, who is narrow-minded, rude, and even a little bit racist, but it later unfolds that she had rich life experiences.
Ayesha, Sara’s friend, who initially comes across as a fake revolutionary and hip-hop wannabe, in her final appearance, gives a virtuoso rendition of her astute poem “Miss Islam”.
And then there’s Tahiera, who works at an airline and is told to take off her scarf because people are too scared to buy tickets from her after 9/11.
“Together they talk about their struggles and experiences, but also teach lessons of love, family and sisterhood.
“It will be really interesting to see how this is received 13 years later,” said Ms Davids.
However, Ms Adams said that as long as there are woman asking questions about what it is to be a Muslim woman in Cape Town, the play will be relevant.
“As long as people are boxed into how they should be or how the world perceives them, the play will be relevant.”
Ms Davids adds: “The thing in South Africa is the tremendous difference between the rights that we have on paper and the lives we lead daily, and for me, quite frequently it has been startling to come home and recognise particular sexism in the country and how that translates in social dynamics and in the workplace.
“Our constitution holds such remarkable promise, and it would be wonderful to see those things put into effect. We live in a country where the violence against women is ricocheted to terrifying levels.
“At the same time we come from a country where women have historically taken up positions of strength and leadership in the most extraordinary and inspiring ways.
“So it’s about bringing those things into some sort of proximity and finding ways to transform this and meet the aspiration here.”
Ms Adams said particularly during Women’s Month, the Artscape work is important as the festival brings women from all walks of life together.
Since the play was last staged in Cape Town, Ms Davids has written four more plays, with one of them, Cissie, having won multiple awards and being staged locally and internationally.
She left Cape Town for the UK in 2005 and returned to her home in Woodstock after having lectured at Queen’s University in London.
Last month, she was elected president of the writers’ organisation, PEN South Africa.
At Her Feet shows at the Artscape until Saturday August 12. Tickets cost R80 each.