Luli Callinicos. Born in Johannesburg East Ramd of Greek parents, she is a historian, teacher, writer and social activist. So she, together with Fiona Ramsay, who portrays her, and her characters, on stage, write a play about digging into historical stories of ordinary people. I had never heard of her before attending this play. It underscores the need for the play. We have lots of stories to tell in South Africa, and only a very few of them are being told.
Fiona Ramsay is a theatre veteran. She is magnificent in the role. Those who know her work will understand that I need say nothing more. She is the character she portrays.
The performance space upstairs at the Barney Simon Theatre in The Market Theatre Complex is demarcated into three areas, a circle of books, pictures, files and news clippings with a wooden office chair and small table marks the central space. To each side is a small space with a chair and table. The central character, Cleopatra (Luli Callinicos), uses this to tell her story. The characters go to the side. Each character reads from research notes. It is the historian’s voice that tells the story. The dramatisation is almost incidental to the narrative, although still essential to the entertainment value. It makes the stories within a story come to life.
From time to time historical photographs appear on slides behind the action. Names are spelled out together with descriptors. This underscores the scholarly nature of the work being performed and it is helpful and not at all distracting. It satisfies my curiosity.
Three of Callinicos’ books are referenced in the play, with copies on stage. They form a trilogy, Gold and Workers (1981), Working Life: Factories, Townships and Popular Culture (1987), which won the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, and A Place in the City: the Rand on the Eve of Apartheid (1993).
I am in awe of the woman, “Cleopatra”, I am touched by her characters. Poor whites, coloured women who feel they belong nowhere, young women, older women … all caught up in a strange Apartheid driven time warp, where educated and cultured men grovel and call menial workers “Missis” because the former is black and the latter white. A poor white woman who rises from cleaner to garment worker to union activist. A coloured woman in the present.
The story of Luli Callinicos is a wonderful one, and one which I am thrilled that her modesty has not prevented from being told. I am grateful that in this 40th year of The Market Theatre’s existence we are getting to hear important new stories, this one told with skill, grace and great theatrical intelligence by Fiona Ramsay, directed adroitly by Megan Willson.
This work is only on for one week at The Market Theatre, Newtown, in 2016, but it is coming back for a proper season in 2017.