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In our collective memory, “Nirbhaya" or “The Fearless" is the 23-year-old woman who was gang raped in New Delhi last year and later succumbed to her injuries. The incident has inspired a play by the US-based writer and director of South African origin Yaël Farber. NIRBHAYA, with its all-Indian cast, will be unveiled at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, on till 26 August, followed by shows in India later this year. Farber’s Mies Julie, a story about class, love and battle of the sexes in apartheid-ridden South Africa, was one of the most feted productions at the festival last year. In an email interview, she talks about the message behind NIRBHAYA, the similarities with South Africa’s protest theatre and the play’s special connection with Bollywood actor Poorna Jagannathan. Edited excerpts:

What drew you to the Nirbhaya case?

Like the rest of the world, I was deeply affected by the Delhi gang rape, her courageous fight for her life and subsequent death. People have theorized why this one case stood out and became a tipping point for so many. What matters is that it broke the barrier of indifference and an appropriate level of righteous rage suddenly manifested on the streets of her nation and caught the attention of the world.

This project was initiated by Poorna Jagannathan (a Mumbai-based actor), who reached out to me in the wake of the woman’s death. Poorna, like me, was affected profoundly and felt that silence about sexual violence has been part of a larger fabric of culturally engendered silence, which contributed in its own way to what had transpired on that bus. Poorna had seen Amajuba—one of several testimonial works of mine—in New York several years prior. Amajuba was about South Africa—the country I grew up in—and the brutal system of apartheid. When she saw (via Facebook) how affected I was by the woman’s death, we began to chat. All over the world, there was a global response to that event. I believe in what I consider to be theatre’s true, original intention: to show us to ourselves in our true raw form.

What does the play talk about?

This production can broadly be described as a testimonial work. But this term is one that encompasses many different understandings and nuances of a very complex theatre genre. With the rape and death of the Delhi victim as the central “inciting incident", this is a voyage into the realm of personal testimonies culled from the performers, who have survived various forms of sexual violence themselves. This production weaves the true narratives of its performers around that terrible night, as a way to continue the courage people found in those days after her death.

But we know that the flames of righteous rage can burn out quickly in this saturated world. This production is a way of pushing forward with the sense of empowerment women and men found to push against the silence so long enforced on survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. By offering their personal testimonies as a playwright, we come to understand how the unspeakable suffering of that young woman was a night made possible by an entire system that enables perpetrators and protects them from any real accountability.

You grew up witnessing the birth of protest theatre in Johannesburg. How does that influence your work?

In every possible way. Protest theatre was birthed in the 1970s but as a teenager in the 1980s, when apartheid was in its dying throes and thus most brutal for those years, I would go to the Market Theatre and watch such productions as Woza Albert, Sarafina, Asinamali. We were living inside a fascist regime and inside the suburban bubbles of the white communities. What we were told by the state-controlled press, at school, in books was censored and reworked to fit the agenda of the regime. Being inside those theatres felt like it was the only place someone was telling me the truth. It was a hard truth—but the truth at any cost. I will never forget the power and dignity of that. It created a strong sense in me of what theatre (when used to its full potential) can do. How it can start a revolution one audience seat at a time.

Would ‘NIRBHAYA’ be counted as a work of protest theatre?

Yes. I was asked by Poorna Jagannathan to come out here and create something in the wake of Nirbhaya’s death. We have our own crisis going on in South Africa about sexual and gender-based violence. It is in fact a global crisis. But for so many highly complex and ultimately silencing reasons, a fabric of patriarchal misogyny is the accepted discourse across the world. This manifests in societies in different ways but the results are devastating...for everyone.

The rape and death of Nirbhaya is a tipping point that asks for nothing less than a full systemic change. Protest theatre had equally ambitious objectives. NIRBHAYA is a call for change from the individual and the collective through the medium of theatre. So yes, I think one can mention it along with those productions we are proud to take our place alongside as protest theatre.

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