Silvia Cassini’s brand-new play ‘Speak their Names’ which had its world premiere last weekend at the Muthaiga Country Club, is a tour de force.
It’s a powerful indictment of misogyny as depicted by a sensitive man, the Italian playwright Federico Taverio, played with all the essential insight and sensitivity by Brian Ogola.
The play is also a form of the protest told politely about the torture of women and girls, which is only depicted two or three times momentarily in the play.
Those flash moments are meant to reveal the brutal injustice inflicted on women in late 16th-century Italy. But clearly, Cassini like the playwright Federico felt compelled to tell their truth in the dramatic form in which she is best known.
Her most recent production, “A Man Like You” also premiered in Kenya but has toured the world ever since and established this former architect on the solid theatrical ground.
But being a single mother with part of her family living abroad, she has been away for a time. Fortunately, it was just long enough for her to write about the little-known tale of the Witches of Triori.
ALSO READ: Kenyan theatre goes global at Kitfest
These are the women and girls whose stories of suffering and torture might have been lost in one writer’s footnotes if Cassini and her playwright Federico hadn’t felt compelled to tell their story, including the damnable roles of the Catholic Church and the City State in destroying the lives and livelihoods of women who were otherwise recognized as worthy healers, homemakers, and midwives who’d provided essential services in their mountainous community of Triori.
The structure of Cassini’s play is fascinating since she could only find a fragment of the story as the events of 1587 had already been buried in the women’s undocumented history.
So she invents an interesting avenue of flashback as we witness the writer transcending time and space in his dreams. That is where he meets Giovaninia Ausenda (Nixsha Shah), the child who tells him the story.
She is also someone who wants him to feel the pain of the women’s subjugation so she insists they do a role-play in which he plays the victim with hands bound behind his back.
Meanwhile, she plays the grand inquisitor and torturer who humiliates him even as she ensures he feels a fraction of the pain that women and girls deemed witches endure before they get ‘disappeared’, never to be seen or heard from again.
Only one woman emerged from the torture and impunity of Italy’s ‘Salem witch trials'. Yet no one could explain the survival of the beautiful Franchetta Borelli (Nini Wacera). Cassini strategically weaves her story into the play, first at its very outset, when some late-comers might easily miss this essential moment when the torture and cruelty of men are manifested in that first flash scene.
How it fits into the remainder of the play is one of the reasons someone needs to give the play their full attention since it unfolds like a flower, or is it a jigsaw puzzle?
ALSO READ: A fortnight of best East African art
Nini Wacera, like Martin Kigondu and Matthew Ondiege, is double cast, in the show. But it is she as Franchetta who conveys the full might of a woman’s mind to withstand the heinous rack for nearly 24 hours, and still, she does not break.
She will not confess to the lie of being a witch which she is not.
Whether all the other women who were arrested, interrogated and tortured finally confessed under extreme duress, we will never know. But in his dream, Federico promises to tell the women’s truth.
In his dream, he confronts the women’s oppressors and risks his own life in the process. In fact, when he’s awake, we worry that he might overdose on the sleeping pills he consumes as means of slipping quickly back into his dream and having Giovanina tell him the remainder of the women’s tale.
It’s finally the shock of finding her tortured and fated to die that he fully accepts being the one to speak their truth to the world and ensure their lesson is learned.
Yet if, after hundreds of years, their story still resonates as a reality inflicted in one form of abuse or another on women, (be it FGM, domestic violence, rape, or incest), then a play like ‘Speak their Names’ is still necessary to rouse awareness of the ongoing need for equity, gender equality, and most importantly, justice for all the women and girls deemed witches, be they from Salem or Triori or even Endor.