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SCENE IT: Sinful scars explored in THE GOOD DAD

Barbara Loots

 

Given South Africa’s gender-based-violence struggles, THE GOOD DAD, currently onstage at the Baxter’s Masambe Thetare, reflects on the psychological scars of society’s patriarchal past. The impact of the sins of the father is explored through the perspective of three women: the discarded wife, the ‘favoured’ daughter, and the sister who always felt second-best.

Albeit not a true story in full, THE GOOD DAD by Gail Louw is based on true events. The play draws from an incident in the 1980s where a daughter finds herself the victim of sexual abuse and incest at her father’s hand, yet remains silent (along with her mother and sister), because her father has a weak heart and needs the family’s protection. Ultimately, though, the impact of the grooming and abuse over the years creeps up on Donna (the abused daughter), and she finds herself in prison while her father’s head finds itself all too well acquainted with a cast-iron frying pan.


When asked about the true story influence, Louw explains that it is loosely based on the real-life facts. To maintain the confidentiality of the original family, she has taken care to change aspects that could lead to their identity. However, she says, “the main issues about a father abusing his child, having children with her, leaving his wife [also her mother] for her and setting up home with his daughter and their children, is true.”


The intent behind the play is to give the audience an opportunity to question (and if possible understand) “how a girl and then woman would feel and experience the horrors of abuse by someone she loved, how and why her mother was not able to protect her and how others in the family might feel”. In unpacking all this, Louw asked the question: “What would I have done?” She elaborates on this approach to the play: “I think this is an important question in the play, especially when you realise, what else could she have done. There but for fortune…"

In no way does THE GOOD DAD shy away from showing the characters in question as flawed humans. In fact, that’s where the appeal of it all is found. It is then important to take those flaws into account when deciding on the setting and tone with which to stage this play, as it is more social commentary than it is scandal informed. For that reason, Louw acknowledges that taking on this play is no easy feat, as it takes massive commitment to sell a story of this nature.

 

This made me think of a film critic friend who recently spoke of the Apollo 13-effect: Where a story is known before you see the dramatisation, it calls for those telling the story to make it so interesting and multi-layered that the audience is still captivated throughout with a sufficient tension-build-up. As the story of THE GOOD DAD is based on an incident dating back to the 1980s (on which the press then and theatre reviews now have reported on extensively) chances are that the audience will walk into any staging of THE GOOD DAD aware of the history of this particular “moon mission”. The task of the production team is then to present a staging that fully captivates the audience through its exploration of the psychological underpinnings of the trauma experienced by the characters.

 

Gail Louw’s script gives a great framework for this, and Erika Breytenbach-Marais in the current staging gives an emotional all-in performance. What limited the captivating effect for me is that I could not really see any change in tempo or structure between the presented perspectives in the play to fully give that tension build-up kick that makes knowing the tale almost irrelevant.


Although the emotional exploration in the story felt a bit too linear, that takes nothing away from the social impact of the current staging. That it is there and cuts very close to the bone of our reality in South Africa, where we are faced with horrifying GBV media reports daily, is undeniable. For that reason alone, people should be encouraged to go see THE GOOD DAD (as well as the Afrikaans translation DIE GOEIE PA) at the Baxter Theatre’s Masambe. Audience members will no doubt feel the events of this 1980s tragedy echoing way too loudly in 2024: So many abused children fall through the cracks of our social systems because of that “What-Would-The-People-Say” as the inevitable conspirator of the Stockholm Syndrome that has find its way into our societal DNA.


What the current staging does well is create the sense of confinement, not simply because the main character, Donna, is incarcerated, but also because the three main characters are captured by their circumstances and society. Although there is an absence of the father’s voice in it all, the three perspectives driving the commentary being the women most affected by his sinful ways, the absence of his voice speaks as loudly as their presence does.


THE GOOD DAD will be performed at The Baxter Masambe Theatre until 18 February 2024. The Afrikaans version, DIE GOEIE PA, will be performed at The Baxter Masambe Theatre from 20 to 24 February. Bookings can be made at Webtickets. Please note that the production carries an age restriction of 16.

 

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