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The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane — InterAct Theatre at Adrienne

untitled (14)As the host of the World Cup in 2010, South Africa is eager to show the progress the country has made in terms of equality and human relations during the 20 years since Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and 16 years since Mandela was elected to head the South African government by an election open to citizens of all races.

Post-Apartheid South Africa affords a lot of freedom, so much that John Kani, who co-wrote “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” is troubled that younger generations have forgotten the struggle to get it.

Prejudice nevertheless remains. Possibly not as markedly between black and white as between segments of individuals within both of their communities. In “The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane,” Jen Silverman cogently addresses the abomination of “corrective rape,” by which a man who disapproves of a woman being Lesbian can rape her, with impunity and with the endorsement of the woman’s relatives, to show her “a man’s love’ in the expectation of permanently changing her sexual orientation.

As a gay character, who has left South Africa to live in London, explains, homosexual men are free to marry in South Africa even though gayness is not regarded favorably by many. It is legal also to be Lesbian, but an unwritten code among moralistic men makes that dangerous, especially for women who choose to assert their preferences and identities openly.

Pretty Mbane is such a woman. She is proud of herself in every respect and is enthusiastic about the women she chooses to be her friends and partners.

One such woman is Noxolo, a South African with talent enough to make a name for herself in professional football.

Noxolo should be in center of international football activities as her country welcomes soccer fans to heady games that will determine a world champion. She, though, is in England, absent without leave from a university which has given her a football scholarship so she can play on their side in collegiate matches. Noxolo, and all who speak about her, talk about her having a place on a future South African team, and some wonder aloud why she isn’t playing for South Africa for the women’s cup in 2010.

The reason for many of Noxolo’s decisions is Pretty Mbane, her one-time partner who brought attention to the women’s relationship by cheering on Noxolo loudly from the stands and making suggestive mannerisms and expressions to emphasize her support.

This disturbed many. Noxolo’s brother, Sicelo, develops a deep-seated dislike for Pretty, who he considers too outspoken, too dismissive of polite convention, and too exuberant about a trait of which Sicelo thinks she should be ashamed, or at least abashed.

Sicelo is not alone in his particular grudge against Pretty Mbane. She has become a leader in a new struggle, one for Lesbian rights and freedom from fear of “corrective rape.” Pretty is an activist. In the settlement of Soweto, near the city of Cape Town, she maintains a safe house where Lesbian women can find shelter and protection from the rapes the men in their families and others prescribe for them. She and her tenants defend the house, and Pretty is hated for keeping enraged men from doing what they regard as their normalizing duty.

Silverman keeps none of this a secret for long. Nor does she couch people’s feeling and intentions in mysteries her audience will have to unravel or wait to see concluded. You know from the outset that Pretty is dead, murdered by people who dragged her from her home, stabbed her, and buried her under a barely obscuring layer of dust that is quickly dug through by a yellow dog, revealing her corpse.

You also know that Noxola’s worry about Pretty, from or about whom she’s heard nothing in weeks, is what distracts her from her studies in London or any interest in the World Cup.

At first it seems as if Silverman is giving too much away. Everything is so clear in “The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane,” there doesn’t seem to be much left from which to create wonder or dramatic intensity. Yes, learning who Pretty’s murderers are would provide some suspense. Noxolo is certainly interested enough in finding out who is responsible for Pretty’s death to return unexpectedly from London to conduct her own investigation. But Silverman doesn’t seem to have a mystery in mind. She is more intent in exploring the reason Pretty was killed, a reason we know.

Factually, all might seem cut-and-dried, situations known and attitudes revealed. Silverman can afford to let us know most of the details and ideas plays usually take time to unfold because she is more interested in the mindset that conceives of and perpetuates corrective rape and on the interrelation of the individuals surrounding Pretty Mbane than she is on the intricate aspects of her murder. She can and does draw back on the whodunit plot, furthered by the presence of a British football reporter in Noxolo and Sicelo’s midst, but “The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane” derives its real strength, it impressively provocative strength, from its look into the nature of people.

The reporter, Gregory, is not only sending back articles about the matches taking place in Cape Town. He is assigned to write a think piece on “The New South Africa,” a country that has grown from conflict to take an exemplary place among the world’s nations. Silverman shows us what Gregory should find by taking us grittily through the mires of prejudice and the effect they have even on a population that won its dignity in a hard-fought war against bigotry and the cavalier categorization of one human being by another.

“The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane” delves deeply into its characters and their motivations. You see how family ties affect individual men’s attitudes towards Lesbianism. You are made to understand where lines are drawn in terms of accepting flamboyance and pride. You see the proclivity of people to look down on certain behaviors and to make an issue of matters that should be none of their business. You also hear the point of view of someone who purposely fled South Africa, not because he had to, gay males being left relatively alone, but because he knew acceptance of his gayness was more polite than sincere, and he preferred a society, Britain, in which he thought people were less likely to turn coat and act on their prejudices.

Silverman finds great depth in her characters, especially the women, Noxolo and Pretty, played with distinction by Aimé Donna Kelly and Lynnette R. Freeman. Their love is particularly poignant, even when we know why they ended their relationship and especially when we witness it carried out from a distance of several thousand miles while Pretty is in Cape Town, and Noxolo is in London. Of course, Noxolo’s affection, her devotion actually, continues to be expressed after she knows of Pretty’s death, when only she is moved to restore some dignity and humanity to a friend so savagely butchered and left to decay.

Silverman’s play, a world premiere, works because she invites the audience’s indignation. For all she reveals rather baldly about Pretty’s death and the practice of corrective rape, she draws the InterAct crowd into a world of secrecy, of self-righteousness, and self-satisfaction and generates compassion for the women subjected to the cruelty of rape in the name of propriety. She also provides a seamier look at the New South Africa from the one usually reported.

Noxolo is the character that brings all of the powerful and human aspects of “The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane” to the fore, and Aimé Donna Kelly is intensely luminous in the part.

Noxolo is close to all of the characters. She has a confidante in Marcel, her gay friend who left South Africa and whom she can see in person in London and talk to by telephone from Cape Town. She has a typically tense relationship with her brother, who loves his sister and delights in her prowess as a footballer, but who sides with those who would teach Lesbians the pleasure of intercourse with a male, will they or nil they. Sicelo, played with intensity by Akeem Davis, speaks of the mortification he has felt from his sister’s openness about being a Lesbian, and from Pretty Mbane’s overt signs of affection in public and, in particular, at football matches.

Through Kelly’s eyes, you see all Pretty means to Noxolo.

Noxolo is not the activist Pretty is, but she shares her disdain for keeping her sexuality a private matter, even in a country that might turn a blind eye towards women who are discreet about their partnering.

For many reasons that go beyond Noxolo’s scholarship to England, Noxolo and Pretty are right to end their partnership. But the love lasts. For Noxolo, who has not sought partners and concentrated, until distracted, on school and her football prospects, Pretty is the woman who awakened her and who also taught her to be proud of her sexuality no matter what bigot her pride offends. For Pretty, who is more promiscuous. Noxolo is the partner of record, the true love, the exception among the general. Pretty goes with some women for sex and friendship. Her bond with and regard for Noxolo is much deeper and much more a part of her being. Silverman’s play doesn’t contain a lot of past scenes that show Pretty and Noxolo together, but when the flashbacks occur, Kelly and Freeman convince you of the women’s intimacy and special hold on one another.

Noxolo becomes a detective or sorts. She enlists Gregory, the reporter who tries to hit on her as he tries to hit on every woman, and eventually learns what she needs to know about Pretty’s demise as Gregory gets information from Sicelo.

As happens often at InterAct Theatre, “The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane” explores a lot of issues. The crux of Silverman’s work is its humanity. She gives away details other authors might withhold because they are bases for what she wants to show and say as opposed to being devices to trigger drama. She is more intent in exposing prejudice and practices that continue, and that victimize women, in a country the history of which is so haunted and tainted by segregation and the nomination of “the other.”

Silverman clearly shows the frightening justification men share among themselves that keeps corrective rape from being widely excoriated and prosecuted.

Most of all, she brings to the stage characters of depth. Noxolo is an amazing woman, young but with priorities and decency in place. Marcel is direct as to why he would rather be a minority in London, possibly a minority who yet experiences some prejudice, than to put up with the insincere tolerance to gays in his native land. Sicelo expresses the attitude of the average male South African, as Silverman depicts it. He becomes especially dangerous when you realize he thinks what happened to Pretty helps his sister rather than wounding her and robbing from her a woman she loved and who gave her comfort. Pretty is the fearless, dedicated woman we would all want on our side if we were fighting an injustice and pleading for dignity from a society that does not seem inclined to grant it.

Pirronne Yousefzadeh finds the perfect tone and mood in her direction of the InterAct production. Even in the beginning scenes of exposition, Yousefzadeh creates an atmosphere of importance. We know that what Pretty Mbane, and later Sicelo, are telling us is of vital interest, and we are led to pay attention to every word and become involved with Jen Silverman’s view of a sad situation and how it affects individuals, particularly those close to Noxolo.

Yousefzadeh keeps the tension rising as “The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane” proceeds. Each scene seems like a more hurtful slap at humanity and people’s ability to accept one another and live among one another. You certainly become increasingly aware of a new segregation infesting the new South Africa. By the end you want to embrace Noxolo and lead her to a less damaging, less disillusioning world.

Aimé Donna Kelly endows Noxolo with maturity and understanding that are beyond the character’s years. Although Noxolo might seem impetuous and emotional as she ignores her scholarship and her football hopes, you quickly see it’s her depth of feeling for Pretty and confusion about all that happens that drives her supposed negligence.

Kelly’s Noxolo is not one who settles for surface answers. She seeks the truth , and she wants to be convinced of it. She leaves London in a state of wonder, and she returns to South Africa armed with an inquisitive urge to confront all who could tell her what really happened to Pretty and who is responsible for it.

Noxolo does not buy into the rhetoric she hears about sexuality, even when people tell her it’s all right for her to be Lesbian as long as she doesn’t make it obvious. She is willing to never play another game of football to get to the crux of what specifically led to Pretty’s killing. Kelly plays Noxolo with a mind towards suffering no fool or liar gladly. She is a serious woman engaged in serious business. Dying for a cause may be a part of South Africa’s past to some, but Pretty Mbane has been sacrificed for men’s vanity, and Noxolo wants to condemn such an act and its smug roots.

For all of the hardness and tension Kelly gives Noxolo, the character triggers your affection, and the actress makes you care about her to a great degree.

Lynnette R. Freeman is as moving as Pretty Mbane, a woman who would defend her principles, and the women she seeks to protect, to the end.

Freeman has the look of a crusader, a fierceness tempered by humor and when with Noxolo, romance. Every time Freeman speaks, even in general conversation, you hear the edge, sarcasm, or purpose in her voice. For a moderate sized woman, she also gives a sense of filling the stage and giving her character great breadth and stature. Freeman’s Pretty is a woman whose exuberance is natural. She feels deeply and she uses her emotions to expose and protect against a foul practice and to be a good first partner for Noxolo, lavishing her with affection and conviction beyond the passive or the ordinary.

Akeem Davis continues his string of realistic performances as Sicelo, who can be ‘hail fellow, well met’ when he’s waiting on customers in his bar or be as committed as his sister, Noxolo, (but in reverse) to beliefs and practices that bring rather than eliminate chaos to his world. Davis never lets you see the seams in his acting. He always gives the impression he is completely the character he is playing, to the point you half expect to meet him as Sicelo when he’s off-stage.

Among the fine things Davis does as Sicelo is show how a relatively decent man can conform to the practices of his time and place, even when those practices might directly concern his sister.

Eric Berryman is a nicely relaxed raisonneur as Marcel, the pragmatist who presents all so clearly to Noxolo and who makes the rational choice to be an exile from South Africa rather than to worry about watching his step in it.

Berryman exudes sincerity and sensibility and maximizes a small but important role in Silverman’s play.

Gregory provides Silverman a character who can gather and talk about information without being intimately involved, and Ross Beschler gives the reporter an aloofness that makes Gregory seem more benign than he may prove to be.

Beschler’s reporter is gregarious and flirtatious while also showing a seedy side. He’s a man who goes about the world drinking, womanizing, and having a good time between filing stories. Beschler plays his outgoing well while also making it clear Gregory is an outside in the Cape Town Silverman depicts.

Carolyn Mraz’s set makes good use of the corrugated steel panels that immediately make you think of makeshift houses in Soweto. They also represent a battle zone of sorts, which “The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane” can be.

Katherine Fritz’s costumes suited, and I particularly thought the tannish grays in which she dressed Freeman’s Pretty Mbane were evocative of the character as a battler and as murder victim.

“The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane” runs through Sunday, February 8, by the InterAct Theatre at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $38 to $34 with discounts for seniors and students and can be obtained by calling 215-568-8079 or by visiting www.interacttheatre.org.

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