For two weeks in the closing months of 2019, the South Africa team (WP1) had us in the palm of their hands. Or, more accurately, we had them in the palm of our hands, as we waited each day for the next installment of the sex worker theatre group’s experimental 14 day Whatsapp soap opera.
The idea for the soapie came out of the theatre and performance training workshops that the group has been participating in since 2019. The training has covered principles of Augusto Boal’s participatory “Image Theatre” and “Forum Theatre”, drawing from the everyday experiences of the sex workers and providing a space to tell, share and sometimes see their stories with different plotlines and possibilities. The training is designed so that each module culminates in a writing process that includes thinking about new ways of scripting the various productions so that they can reach a wide audience, including other sex workers in Cape Town. How could we experiment with form and content to think outside of existing systems of representation in which sex workers’ lives, perspectives and humanity are routinely devalued and caricatured?
The idea to make the soapie was inspired by the financial services and insurance company Sanlam. The company's WhatsApp drama series, Uk’shona Kwelanga was used to market their funeral policies. WhatsApp was chosen by Sanlam, because it is the most popular messaging app in South Africa. Our soapie is a feminist re-routing and subverting of the commercial imperatives of Sanlam. Various scenes in our soapy—police harassment and sexual exploitation, social stigma, moral double-standards, sex worker solidarities, fantasies and play—came from the production Intando Yam: My Choice that was the theatre group's first production that we started working on in June 2019. The scenes were condensed and translated into the WhatsApp soapie format by scriptwriter Chase Rhys.
In collaboration with the group, Chase worked to develop the scenes, which were then performed and captured on a smartphone. The soapie includes image sculptures, short “know your rights” voice notes and videos. Our soapie was a pilot with a fragmented narrative. Scenes from the church gossips were scripted alongside other episodes that included a Muslim client phoning to ask for the services of a tomboy and a beautifully eerie “Strange Dream Dance”. The episodes were shared across the Global Grace team, drawing out our attention from our everyday routines, inviting us into very different flows of labour, emotion and sensuality.
It is often the case that when the stories of sex workers are told, they are produced through a voyeuristic lens that does little to dislodge stereotypes and the fetishisation of the workers. Telling stories differently is not an easy labour. Involving the subjects of a story in producing their own narratives is no guarantee of escaping objectification. It is often the case that films and other media reporting of sex work is done relatively quickly, without the time to build up relationships and a complex picture of sex work as one part of a richly textured life. Our work is slow and imperfect. We are all continually challenged and stretched. We can never forget that we are creating theatre with people who are often living in precarity, the subjects of many forms of structural violence, including the aftermath of Apartheid. Of course these lived realities affect the process of making our productions, not least in how we can maintain routines and structures of working together. Yet, through the fire and smoke of the everyday crises that members of the theatre group are living through, they still want to talk back to these structures, to prise open some breathing space, however small, to demand something better. The Whatsapp soapie is a small part of this demand, ensuring that sex workers have a say in the way they are represented and that their stories are given careful attention.
As we work towards our third theatre production in 2020, we are exploring ways of archiving the soapie and thinking about the role of social media in our project.
Yasmin, Phoebe, Yaliwe and Sara