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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

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Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category


Beyond Words was a tour that brought four SA poets together to recite new work and share ideas and inspiration with poets from the UK. Travelling across 5 cities, the tour performed in Newcastle, London, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham. This Saturday, 12 December, Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, National Poet Laureate (Order of Ikhamanga), Lebo Mashile, TV personality, poet and winner of the Noma Award for publishing in Africa, and writer and performer Phillippa Yaa de Villiers.beyondwords_southbank11

The tour, produced by Sustained Theatre and Apples and Snakes, and supported by the UK Arts Council, the British Council and the Department of Arts and Culture, brought poets together in a series of performances, master classes and workshops and also published a chapbook of new poems by Keorapetse Kgositsile, Don Mattera, Lebo Mashile and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers.

The flyer for the Birmingham performance beyond-words-flyer

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Who owns whom?

Monday morning and time has a babelaas as outside Jeppe Prep bodies wriggling with anxiety are throwing satchels over their shoulders and rushing to catch the morning bell. My son crosses the line of prefects like an athlete at the kiddie olympics, a smile breaks over his face, a wave of relief. In South Africa time is not indigenous because the time that we keep is always ahead of us, frowning disapprovingly as we struggle to keep up with it. Time is a white man, possibly German or Swiss. African time is an entirely different creature. African time is not human, it is elemental. It moves with the rhythm of the universe which is why all musicians have a faraway look in their eyes when they arrive half an hour late for dinner appointments. Australopithecus africanus did not have a deadline – we took time to evolve.

I have a two-faced chip on my shoulder that whispers in Ga and Zulu and Afrikaans and English.

Most people call me umlungu but when I throw stones at dogs I feel my African genes. Watching their little paws dodging the lump of stone: I always get them. I don’t even have to aim, it just happens. Not to say I have anything against dogs. Dogs are my best friends. I just show them where they fit in. As soon as they start acting too human, I let them know that they are dogs. We are all happier that way.

Growing up in the suburbs, I was bitten repeatedly. I became one of those people who is scared of dogs. A number of experiences have changed me. Owning a dog has given me confidence.

When we were given our first dog, Papalaps, I was intimidated. For a year I cooked chicken for her, only introducing her to dog food when she had six pups as a teenage mother. I was worn out and exiled her to the outside room. Until then she had slept in the house, but her habit of leaving foul-smelling little presents for me and my son to pick up was finally too much for me. Even now when she gets a bowl of superwoof dog chunks put in front of her she looks up as if to say: um… is this for me? but… it’s dogfood.

The secretary of the vet is very delicate about the words she uses about dogs in front of them. Instead of talking about human food versus dog food, she says “table food”. It’s one of those euphemisms that give me a quick bout of hives like “community” and “informal settlement”. Our sweet South African way of not saying what it is that we’re talking about, couching it in softer words. Air-freshener in a pit latrine.

We kept one of Papalaps’s six children because we wanted to break the cycle of giving children up for adoption. Jonathan is a feisty little fellow, now just a little taller than his mum. He’s quite sure that he’s a dog, even carefully lifting his leg from time to time. Then about a year later, Barney Simon, named for the legendary director of Black Dog Njenyama, moved in. A dog from a broken home, he strayed into our yard and was kept because he looked vicious and I wanted to have two barkers and a biter. He looks like a cross between an African hunting dog, a beagle and a labrador, with a fierce ridge down his back and a brief, blunt nose. He overpowers burglars with his monumental cowardice, leaping into their arms slobbering with terror.

These companions join me on my jogs (which become increasingly more like brisk walks as I rediscover the pleasure of smoking) through Troyeville. Proudly pulling me forward with their leashes, they own the area between Beelaerts Street and the David Webster Park, and all the way down Nourse to the park at the top of Benbow. Barney, the sole holder of a valid pair of testicles, marks his territory as we progress: that tree is mine, and this tyre, and that gate-post… which makes me wonder, how can one dog have so much urine to dispense? It’s an unstoppable flow. If only he could turn his prodigious talent to writing we’d both be able to retire.

I think that dogs are barking at one another because they’re exchanging insults. “your woman can’t jump!” “your man has a big ass!” etc. And our dogs bark back to defend us. They boast to one another about our achievements: “My person gave me chicken scraps yesterday.” “She bought me a new bed. I hate it.”

I set out to write a much more serious piece on diversity and languages, but this is what came. Like the media tome of the same name, this little article attempts to deconstruct the power relations within the pet relationship. We used to have a cat, who owned all the dogs until he decided to move on to a different home. I miss him and his narcissism.

My boyfriend reckons I should put them to work. Teach them how to open the gate. Clean up after themselves. He’s falling into the same trap of seeing them as human: children with chores. I reckon, let dogs be dogs. When they act human, get them to dodge their paws and run. Who’s paying the bills around here, anyway?

Dogs teach us about time as they have so much less than we do, and they spend it more wisely. Lying about, eating, humping legs and other dogs, they have other priorities. They also don’t see race. “Race” in French is the word for “breed” so once in the metro a kindly old lady asked a clochard with a pack of dogs what breed the fluffy one was. The homeless lady rose and raved: “You racist! who cares what race the dog is! it’s a dog! that’s enough isn’t it! but no, you people have to put everyone into a box! shame on you!” Shame on me with my chips.

Perhaps we are dogs’ spokespeople and service providers, their PR people and their agents. What the hell am I doing writing about them anyway? They’re only dogs. The Tanzanian at the end of our street had ten gigantic puppies that have grown into massive dogs. They burst through the fragile fence and rush up to people snarling. Now I know they’re only dogs, I am not intimidated. When a dog confronts you, don’t be diplomatic. Show Bush-style aggression. They will leave you alone. They know they are only dogs, but sometimes they forget. We should not, because we own them.

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Notes on Original Skin

Biographical sketch that first appeared in the Mail & Guardian – and more information about Original Skin, on at the Market Theatre until 22 June, from Litnet.

After a number of incidents in my childhood — when I was expelled from the movies, teased at school and asked personal questions about my origins — I demanded photographs of my mother, pregnant. Then, when I wanted to see pictures of myself as a newborn, there weren’t any. I rifled through my mother’s papers looking for some official document explaining me. I never found one.

In retrospect it all makes sense. At the age of 20 my father told me that I was adopted and that my biological father was possibly aboriginal. It took 14 years for me to discover the true story and an additional nine years to write it down. Original Skin, which opens at the Market Theatre this week, is the culmination of this process.

Adoption is difficult to describe because it is loaded with guilt. In her book, Twice Born, author Betty Jean Lifton writes: “Adoptive parents demand that their stories end happily ever after, although they must know that even families with blood ties cannot be promised such a simple-minded plot. Even blood children must one day go off on their own lonely journeys of self-discovery.” This form of emotional bondage robs many adoptees of the words to describe themselves and their situation. This becomes untenable for a writer.

More info on Original Skin

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Original Skin at the Market Theatre

Original Skin

Home Truths Production in Association with the Market Theatre Presents


Written and Performed by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

Direction and Script Development by Robert Colman

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Please come and watch and buy books! please let your SA expats in London know about our show so they can come and support us – there is after all more to life than rugby!


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Original Skin: a contribution to race/identity/humanity story

Last weekend I did a rehearsed reading of my new play Original Skin at the Market Theatre Laboratory. It’s about a black woman, Alex Coetzee, who goes back to her childhood bedroom to pack away the past, only to be visited by the ghosts of her biological and her adoptive parents. As the story unfolds, we witness the breakdown of a relationship under the unbearable strain of the common-sense racism that characterized everyday life under apartheid.

In writing this piece, I wanted to tell a story and entertain the audience, but also to examine how we lived informs who we are today. Is race something that exists outside of us? Do we “fit in” to a race or does it arise in us? Is there really such a thing as a “coconut”? Why is there so much debate around how black people define ourselves – or don’t define ourselves?

Some people feel that identity is overdone, that we need to get beyond it. I write what is burning in me, so I find that to question the validity of writing on identity, negates the very premise of my work. I found James Baldwin’s Autobiographical Notes especially inspiring when I read them earlier this year. I think one of the reasons why I wrote this play is because I want to write about other things, and my life and circumstances always intrude.

“… the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for.)”


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