National Arts Festival 2016: As Ever, Bessie

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Denise Newman, as Bessie Head folds a jersey as she waits for her flight from Nairobi Airport, with fellow passenger Dr Habib (Ntombi Makhutshi) trying to calm the flustered Bessie. Photo; Etienne Shardlow/Artsvark
Denise Newman, as Bessie Head folds a jersey as she waits for her flight from Nairobi Airport, with fellow passenger Dr Habib (Ntombi Makhutshi) trying to calm the flustered Bessie. Photo; Etienne Shardlow/Artsvark

Bessie Head would have turned 79 yesterday, 6 July, and to honour her life, Business and Arts South Africa, and the National Arts Festival presented Denise Newman’s production of As Ever, Bessie.

The play opens a year after the 1976 student uprisings, Bessie Head (Denise Newman) is waiting to catch her first international flight, to the United States where she will represent Botswana in an international writing programme. She is distressed at the thought of leaving the African continent. Bessie has arrived at the airport with a heavy suitcase, badly packed and feeling flustered. A chance encounter with a fellow passenger who tries to help her, reveals this passenger to be Dr Habib (Ntombi Makutshi), a fan of Bessie’s writing. Dr Habib comments on the weight of Bessie Head’s suitcase, to which Bessie Head replies that she has carried ‘heavier things’ alluding to her struggles. They strike up a conversation, after an initial conflict with Dr Habib insisting on helping this stranger and fellow passenger by repacking her suitcase and sharing with her an impromptu picnic meal.

Bessie Head reacts badly to Dr Habib’s offer of help, as it brings back memories of her treatment by nurses in mental institutions that treated her as helpless. She launches into an attack of Dr Habib telling of her struggles, of her birth in a mental hospital, her mother having been institutionalised for having a child with a black man, as a mixed race child with no family, and then escaping to Botswana into exile on an exit permit, leaving her with no country too. This monologue enlightens the audience to Bessie Head’s struggles with identity, of not belonging, of her neurosis and the “demons and scars” that led to her becoming such a profound writer.

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Dr Habib, a fan of her work, doesn’t appreciate this outburst and tells Bessie Head that she’s not the only one with problems and tells of her reason for travelling, her daughter’s mental distress and breakdown after being raped in London, of her identity struggles being a Xhosa woman, married to a Muslim man, her rejection by family and community that mirrors Bessie’s own rejection. The show wraps up with Bessie Head being compassionate to her fellow passenger, and gifting an autographed book with a message of support for the Doctor’s daughter.

Both actors are accomplished, and give good performances, but there is a disconnect, as if two shows are on the go at once, they’re interacting but not seeing each other, even when the characters form an understanding and their bond develops. This may have been intentional, but if so the message was lost on me. The play gives the audience an understanding of Bessie Head, and the emotional turmoil she lived with, that contributed to her writing. However the disconnect between the actors, left me disconnected too and I found myself unable to identify with the characters or their emotions as I have done, so strongly, in other productions this festival.

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