Skinned takes on gender-based violence

Anelisiwe Mahamba performs in Skinned, a performance that explores the creation of black female joy and the realities of living in a marginalised and public body in the South African context. Photo: Megan Kelly/Cue

What will it take for women to not only be recognised, but to be safe in South Africa? When will the suppression of agency and the survival of violence from every part of society stop being a perpetual crown of thorns women have to wear?  When will we stop having to preach to the choir? These are some of the questions audience members left with at the end of Skinned.

Skinned is a confrontational piece of protest theatre that has come at a pivotal time in South Africa. With the spotlight turned on gender-based violence now is the time for the discussion to move from horror and disappointment in the state of our society.  We need to create solutions for the systemic obstacles that hinder women from receiving the help they need when violations happen. The play focuses on several women who have experienced violence and try to get help in a police station. Throughout the play, it becomes apparent that the women may not get the help they need, and try to find solace in each other.

The characters’ embodiment of many women speaks to the facelessness of violence. There is no one type of victim, this is seamlessly portrayed in the play, it is both multilayered and jarringly clear.

The women use the minimal set to play out their thoughts and emotions. They embody the words from both the policemen and the victims. “These crates are the obstacles that women constantly need to get over in order to get help. We are constantly carrying the heavy loads of our trauma while life carries on,” Lebohang Fisher, one of the cast members, said.

The play uses a few of the reported stories of gender-based violence as ‘case numbers’. The reaction from the policemen such as “domestic matters are not our business”, and “but she didn’t die” highlights a disturbing culture of victim-blaming that has not been confronted until now. There is an urgent need to address South Africa’s criminal law and procedure systems that question the “evidence” presented by survivors. This often leaves them unprotected by the law. We cannot treat gender-based violence using the same procedure for other crimes. Given our statistics, an entirely new system needs to be thought through and implemented urgently.  

“It’s important for us to own our stories, by doing that, we render the perpetrator powerless,” Siph’esihle Ndaba, the director said. The power and importance of storytelling is not lost on the audience as lively discussions take place at the end of the play. Ndaba plans on taking Skinned to schools to help raise awareness around gender-based violence. It is important to take these stories past the theatre space. It is time to make people uncomfortable so they can carry the discussion past academic spaces.

It will always be important for female directors to take the lead in addressing matters that affect them. Women’s agency and subversion of the silence forced onto them is necessary not only for our current social atmosphere, but also for the women who never found their voices and women still to come.

Written by Karabo Baloyi
Photos by Megan Kelly