CISSIE is a ritual tribute to the remarkable life of Cissie Gool, the District Six icon of resistance to oppression and segregation. The daughter of a prominent Muslim “coloured” man and a Scottish woman, and granddaughter of Indian and Malay slaves, she shattered stereotypes and the constraints of her context in her political, academic and legal careers and through her courageous leadership in all spheres of life.
Writer and director Nadia Davids has woven the facts and legends of Cissie Gool into a piece that also traces the unique vibrancy and tragedy of District Six in South African history. Historic public events and the imagined private moments that lay behind them have been crafted into a cinematic-style script consisting of brief monologues and scenes from Cissie’s life and a host of vibrant characters who form the backdrop to the story.
The weaving of documentary film and theatrical styles invites a rich interplay of fact, fiction, dialogue and character. At times the script captures breathtaking tragicomic moments of phrasing and characterisation in commentaries on events of the time and the aura of Cissie Gool.
The production does not yet live up to the potential of the script, though. There is a sense of fragmentation in the design of the set and the excessive busy-ness of the constant rigging and removing of poles, washing lines and laundry between scenes that disrupts rather than enables the telling of the story.
The rapidly moving and changing cinematic style undermines the sense of cohesion the piece needs to work as a live theatrical performance. When scenes and dialogues have time and space to develop, the performance takes on a wonderful vibrancy and depth. The cast works hard to ease the fragmentation of narrative caused by these transitions, but the flow and cohesion of the piece suffers nevertheless.
Rehane Abrahams gives a moving sense of Cissie’s courage and vulnerability, but needs to add layers of charisma and depth to this character in time. The supporting actors bring a delightful sense of community and location through their portrayals of the many different people whose lives connect with the story being told.
The play powerfully conveys the magnitude of the events of the times in which Cissie Gool lived, the significance of what she achieved as a political leader and as a woman, and the impact of her ability to galvanise people in unprecedented ways. The shift into using cinematic images from District Six at the end of the performance culminates in fitting applause for the work of telling such stories and the honour of having such stories to tell.