Tendons and joints meet to tell the story of how women’s bodies are Sullied

Kristi-Leigh Gresse performs in Sullied, a performance that challenges us to deconstruct the politics around our bodies and question how we negotiate our existence in society. Photo: Megan Kelly/Cue.

Traditional clothing representing the SiSwati culture and other African cultures lie on the left-wing of the stage. Behind them stands a tall headless mannequin with a black jacket hanging on it. A Bible sits under a four-legged black desk chair. At the far centre of the stage is a huge metal waskom and a small plastic one, standing parallel to each other.

Performer and production choreographer Kristi-Leigh Gresse sticks her leg outside the metal waskom. A young black woman, Fezeka Shandu, has her head wrapped in a black cloth, she wears a black dress and an African National Congress cloth wraps around her bust. Shandu appears to be the helper, who rinses Gresse’s body with clean water – with gentle care and nurture like a mother. She kneels next to the plastic waskom, devoting all her time and dedication to fostering Gresse’s body and removing all the sully.

Nkosingiphile Dlamini creates essential dramatic lighting with the use of four Fresnel lights, two on each wing of the stage. There is light in the darkness. The sounds of Lebohang Mdluli’s feet stomping and his hand thumping the leather Bible cover creates sounds evocative of the sound igubo (African drum) does when you beat its centre.

The choreography moves Gresse’s and Mdluli’s bodies around the stage endlessly. There is a mixture of equilibrium, physical energy and a relationship of trust that reverberates from their bodies and spreads to the far corners of the whole theatre. They are reenacting the same trust relationship that is broken by the violent acts of toxic masculinity.

South African indigenous hymns like “Modimo, re boka wena” are incorporated vocally: An expression of how religious politics have been used to justify the violation of feminine bodies. At times, the Holy Scripture has served as a tool to shield and perpetuate rape culture. When these things are brought to light, the perpetrator often becomes the victim – the fine art of reverse psychology in rape culture.

Why is that clothes and the fabrics that cling confidently and sometimes tightly (rightfully so) to women’s curves and edges evokes anger in men? Why is it that a woman’s body awakens violence inside men’s bodies like plague? How is that women lose their bodily autonomy at the hands of toxic men?

Sullied answers these pertinent questions through Khwezi Becker’s poetry, dance and drastic movement choreographed by Gresse, music, gasps of breath, monologues and physical gestures dripping with sweat.

“The clock ticks… We wait. They watch us dress. These men!”

You can see Sullied at PJ’s at 14:00 on 30 June, 20:00 on 1 July, and 18:00 on 2 July.

By Thandolwethu Gulwa