By Bukamuso Sebata
The Rhodes University Drama Department, in collaboration with the Division of Student Affairs, put together a show neatly wrapping the experiences of first years in an unforgettable musical that received standing ovations. RU Ready? What I Know So Far, was directed by Thembela Madliki in collaboration with the cast. Working alongside Madliki and the talented cast were assistant director Lyndre Bonhomme, musical director Ashwin May, Illka Louw on design, the creative costumier Shiba Sopotela, with James Fourie overseeing the set, and Solly Thaane and Sonwabo Maqanda in charge of the lighting.
The play focused on themes of xenophobia, sexual assault, abortion, mental health, the stigmatisation attached to students who remain on campus while pregnant, the drinking culture, rape culture, substance abuse, sexually transmitted infections, and having sex for the first time.
While the show sparked conversations about first-year students’ experience through punchline jokes and remixes of popular songs, the most gripping scene was the sexual assault of Matshidiso by Zamo.
At the beginning of the show, Matshidiso spoke of how the world kept moving as if nothing happened after she was sexually assaulted. The scene unfolds later in the show with Matshidiso, and her friend discussing a sexual assault on Matshidiso the previous night by a fellow student. Her assailant approaches and snatches her glasses off her head. The two get into an altercation over the glasses but as the scene unfolds, the script becomes more poignant because of the innuendos it is packing.
Matshidiso asks for her glasses back and Zamo refuses, causing Matshidiso to become agitated and uncomfortable because she is confronting her assailant.
Zamo refuses to acknowledge his violation by making the argument simply about the glasses while Matshidiso is describing the violent act he committed on her body. He decides to give her the glasses back and asks if they can hang out again. Matshidiso firmly says “no”, and walks away.
Matshidiso was then forced to continue studying and seeing her assailant on campus, because of the failure of our justice system, and the university in protecting women who come forward to report sexual assault.
Madliki said the powerful and raw scene aimed to discuss consent while highlighting a specific experience and trying not to trigger the cast. As a result, the scene was devised to allow the audience to fill in the gaps themselves.
As much as the show touches on heavy and intense topics, it also leans on light scenes that keep the audience laughing brilliantly, through the use of isiXhosa words and sayings such as “uphambene”, “uzobhubha” and “sifike njani apha?”
The whole room filled with laughter when the cast sang The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” classic with the opening lines being replaced with “Nansi i first year yase Rhodes babo”. Another classical remix creatively done was High School Musical’s “Gotta Go My Own Way”, where the actors are talking about dropping subjects that were holding them back.
The show had moments where the plot was paused so that an actor, now doing an honours degree, could recite a personal letter to their first-year self. The letters were intimate forms of advice promising their younger selves that it does get better.
Most of the issues the play addressed were suggestions from the Division of Student Affairs and the cast. The play criticised the university’s response to the decline in students’ mental health, particularly the establishment of “mental health benches” that have become designated smoking spots. The play pointed out that many students who seek emotional help are either put on waiting lists or ignored.
Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Sizwe Mabizela, the Dean of Students, and other faculty members attended the show. Madliki’s hope was that “they are watching and taking it in” because “we are asking them to do more for students”, he said.