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Jodie’s Body: South African

actress Aviva Jane Carlin reveals all

on body image, apartheid, and art.

By Elaine Hesse

From Radiance Summer 2000

hen the stage lights come up, a middle-aged woman stretches and strikes a pose for the implied art students for whom she is modeling. She is naked as the day she was born. For an hour and fifteen minutes, the character of Jodie delivers, with compassionate wit, instructions for those who might consider becoming artist’s models, reflections on the body, and unbridled joy at the advent of free elections in South Africa. Most of the time the actress is naked. On stage. Alone. Jodie’s Body was written by, and stars, Aviva Jane Carlin. An extraordinary play. An extraordinary woman.

Born in South Africa and raised in Kenya, Carlin later attended London University. A great traveler who has always attempted to live her political and social ideals wherever she has found herself, including working for several months in India with Mother Teresa in homes for the poor, Carlin completed her post graduate degree at The Drama Studio in London and worked there with the award-winning Theatre Impact. She moved to the United States in 1989, where she wrote, taught, and acted. Jodie’s Body is a one-act play which Carlin wrote and first debuted at a Seattle theater festival in 1994. She has toured extensively with the play, mainly for women’s groups and college audiences. By 1998 the show was being staged off-Broadway in New York as well, where Carlin received strong critical reviews in the New York Times and the Village Voice.

In Jodie’s Body, Carlin’s naked body becomes a tool, challenging us to look unflinchingly at the bare truth of being human.

But Carlin is also asking us to look more deeply, to see the fear, vulnerability, cruelty, and strength of our individual and collective existences. She accomplishes this through Jodie’s remembrances of her childhood in South Africa. As a first-rate storyteller, she conjures up the art class instructor, George, and several students; her own mother, “Ma,” a woman with large ideals and physical girth; her mother’s doctor friend Lally; Jane, her family’s beloved maid; Jane’s husband, Golden, a long-time employee, now both physically battered and separated from his wife by the violence of apartheid; and Toujie, the young daughter of Golden and Jane who is also Jodie’s childhood playmate.

With her stories, Jodie brings us close to the profound experiences of terror, courage, and her own accompanying (childlike) confusion. Without allowing the issues of apartheid and of conventional ideas of beauty to compete in any forced or inappropriate way, Carlin manages to put the fight to abolish body size discrimination and personal shame in powerful, radical perspective.

Never didactic, always captivating, with her rendering of Jodie as a genuine, earnest character swept up by memories and emotions three days after South Africa’s first free election, Carlin’s performance is convincing and mind-opening.

During an extended theater run of Jodie’s Body in the fall of 1999 in Sacramento, California, writer Elaine Hesse talked to Carlin about her work, her life, and how the two intertwine.

—Catherine Taylor, Radiance Senior Editor

 Hesse: Is Jodie’s Body autobiographical?

Carlin: Not strictly. The stories of South Africa come from things that happened to many people—people in my family or from stories that I would hear as a child—all woven together. There’s a story about two little girls who are very, very close friends. One is black and one is white, and they are pulled apart by the tensions of the country. That actually happened to my sister, rather than to me. The character of Golden is based on a real person, but the man who inspired Golden was actually a farm worker on my grandmother’s farm in South Africa. And there’s Jane, who is inspired by stories of my mother’s childhood nanny. The real people never actually knew each other, but in the play they’re married.

Hesse: You were born in South Africa, but you weren’t really raised there. What sort of connection did you feel and do you feel to the circumstances that you talk about in the play?

Carlin: I’ve always felt African: East African, South African. Even after moving from South Africa to Kenya, we went back to visit. Both my parents have large families there, and they have been there for generations. We spent time there, and I felt that I understood the country to some degree. I do have a very passionate attachment to Uganda, where I mostly grew up. But when Mandela came out of jail, and with the country’s first free election, I really got in touch with how South African I felt, how much I cared and how important it was to me.

Hesse: Where is your citizenship now?

Carlin: I have South African and British citizenship. Uganda was a British colony when I was a child there, and at the time of its independence, the British offered anybody who wanted it a British passport. My parents immediately said that we were all going to have British passports. My sisters and brother and I all whined like anything and said that we didn’t want them, but in those days of emerging Africa, it wasn’t good for a white person to have a South African passport. So my parents were very pleased to get British passports for us.

Hesse: Is your family still in South Africa and Uganda?

Carlin: My father is in South Africa, my brother is in Seattle, and both my sisters are in England now. My mother died when I was fifteen.

Hesse: You’ve traveled quite a bit. What’s been your personal experience of racism outside of Africa?

Carlin: For anyone who is raised by South African parents racism is a major, major, major concern. There’s a line in the play where my character, Jodie, says, “South Africa is the only thing South African authors can write about.” And it’s also the only thing they can talk about!

We grew up very aware of the fact that my parents came from a poisonous society, where anyone who had any privilege was living on the suffering of other people. It was a strange and extraordinary way to live. You can’t live passively in South Africa: in those days of apartheid, if you weren’t doing anything, then what you were doing was in effect supporting the apartheid government.

But Uganda—in our little circle that we moved in anyway—was really quite a haven of racial harmony. The first really racist remark I heard was when I went to high school in Kenya. I was thirteen. Although I knew about racism, because my parents talked about South Africa such a lot, I hadn’t experienced it directly. Kenya High School had quite strong racist overtones. Not officially; I mean, none of the staff would put up with it if they heard it, but a lot of the girls, among themselves, spoke in a very derogatory way about black Africans. There were four of us from Uganda, all South African, and we were known as these major liberals in the high school because we refused to participate in racist remarks and were so adamant and so firm, and got angry about what we heard.

I found England to be pretty well integrated, although there’s a vicious strand of racism there as well, and it shows up in certain sections of the population, and certain newspapers can be astonishingly racist, right out in the open, in their headlines. And yet in communities in England where there’s a mixture of people, it seems to me to work pretty well. But I’m not a black person living in England; that might be a completely different experience.

Hesse: Have you performed Jodie’s Body in southern states of the United States?

Carlin: I’ve been to Atlanta and I’ve been to Florida. I really just flew to Florida, did the show, and flew out again. In Atlanta I stayed a couple of days and looked around a bit. There was a bit of a kafuffle during the question-and-answer period after the show. A woman in the audience—she was a white woman—said, “It’s very interesting to us, because Americans don’t know anything about struggling and fighting to get the vote.” There was a sort of ripple of irritation through the audience, but the woman kept talking, until finally I said, “Sorry to break in and correct you, but I think you have to say white Americans don’t know what it’s like to struggle and fight for the vote, because it’s not very long ago that most of the population couldn’t vote.” People got quite angry and there was, not a fight exactly, but a “fierce discussion” among blacks and whites in the audience. And it was interesting to me, because this was Atlanta! I mean, for a white person in Atlanta to be unaware of America’s civil rights struggle seems quite remarkable!

I had my own wake-up call about racism in the United States in Seattle. I was talking to a black actor—we were in a show together—and he mentioned very casually that he had been in jail. I asked (sharp intake of breath), “What did you do? ” And he said to me, “I didn’t do anything!” And I realized, Gosh, yes, a young black man in America may well expect to go to jail for nothing. From my point of view, I assumed that because the justice system worked reasonably well, if somebody’s in jail they’ve done something. From his point of view, that was not to be taken for granted at all. There are two worlds, black and white, and their members perceive things so radically different because their experiences are so different, even within the same system.

Hesse: What made you decide to be naked in your show?

Carlin: I thought that I would do a show about being comfortable in the body you live in and also about just enjoying all kinds of bodies. I’d been an artist’s model, and I moved in a world where every body was valid and beautiful in its own right.

Gloria Steinem, who was coproducer of the show in New York, told me how she had started going to baths, women’s public steam baths. She saw that when everyone had no clothes on, each body became right in itself. When the clothes went back on, she could see how the people felt defined by their bodies and how the culture said “good body,” “bad body.” I found when I was modeling that as soon as it’s your job to be the object, to be drawn, then the body takes on its own beauty and power and majesty. You notice how miraculous and how wonderful the body is. So I thought I would do a play about the body, and I was going to be quite light and easy.

I didn’t know how to go about it at first. I mean, if I want to say to people, Consider the possibility of being comfortable in your body, I have to set that up as a possibility by being it, and the only possible way I could think of how to be it was to be naked. Why should people buy it from me if I’m not where there is risk? I don’t see why people should accept my word for it, unless [they can see that I am] right on the edge of being uncomfortable. It is a sort of bad dream we have as children—you’re standing up naked, completely exposed, and you can’t even cover yourself. There’s a bright light shining on you and a whole bunch of strangers sitting in the dark staring at you. I thought, That would be a risky place to be. So that’s exactly what happens in the theater. There I am: naked, lights, and strangers in the darkness. I thought that I would take the risk and be comfortable with it, and have people experience that. People who are uneasy with nudity have said to me, “Why do you have to do it naked?” But I can’t say what I want to say without being naked!

Hesse: What was the first show like? Opening night is generally nerve-wracking enough when you’re clothed.

Carlin: What happened was that I came out in the dark, the lights came up, and I was naked. So the audience’s first view was of the “fat, naked lady.” And the very first time, the very first moment that the lights came up, I thought that I would feel self-conscious but that I would get over it and get on with the play, and I would not be upset with myself if I was uneasy for the first minute. In fact, what I felt, quite unexpectedly, was this absolute surge of joy and freedom and happiness, and there was no doubt in my mind that I had all the power in the room. That I was, at one and the same time, the most vulnerable and the most powerful person. I just felt so happy and free and lovely! It passed across the back of my mind that from now on, I wasn’t going to get away with saying I couldn’t do things (laughs), because if I could do this, then there weren’t a lot of things that I’d be able to say I couldn’t do!

Hesse: Did you rehearse naked as well? Was it less comfortable to be naked and mingling with the crew?

Carlin: That’s the only time there’s a slightly odd moment. Then, and whenever I do the show at universities and women’s centers. Sometimes people don’t know. I’ll say, “You need the lights to be like this, and maybe you’d like to see the flesh so you can get the tone of the lights.” And they’re like, “What?” And I tell them I do the show naked, and they say, “Oh, right, yeah, okay,” and I fling off the robe and there I am, and everybody else has to adjust. I see my job as just making them as comfortable as they can possibly be. But it is odd, where we’re talking and working on something together, it’s very unusual for one person to have no clothes on in a situation like that. But I must say, it always kind of amuses me!

Hesse: You haven’t ever had anyone else decide that they’ll work naked, too, have you?

Carlin: I did once, at a women’s retreat. At the end of the show, one of the women took off her clothes. Another one started to, and then got shy, and then they all closed down. But the first woman was wonderful! She just ripped off her clothes, stood up with her hands above her head, turned around, and showed herself to everybody. I thought that they were all going to jump in and do it, which would’ve been lovely. But they didn’t.

Hesse: The show evolves quite a distance, from the theme of being comfortable with one’s body into issues of apartheid.

Carlin: The election in South Africa just started writing itself into [the play]. I can’t say I made any conscious, deliberate decision. I wrote Jodie’s remark about the fall of apartheid, and it just took off from there. I think it’s not an uncommon experience for writers; the writing takes over and starts doing itself.

Hesse: It seems as if the play is about two very different topics, apartheid and body image, but in the end these come together in the common theme of acceptance.

Carlin: When I was writing, it felt as if I really had two plays. Then it did sort of come together on its own. I get a little uneasy when people think that I’m making some comparison between the suffering of fat women and the suffering of people fighting for freedom in South Africa. I think that would be a terrible betrayal of the people in South Africa. I’m sure that people who don’t feel good about their bodies feel oppressed and feel tyrannized, but you can’t possibly compare that to living in a tyranny and being oppressed to the point of being tortured. It’s not the same thing. Sometimes people think that I‘m saying, Here’s one kind of oppression, and here’s another kind, which disturbs me. To me the play is saying, Here’s one really, really important thing, and here’s one thing that isn’t really important at all!

Hesse: So rather than drawing a similarity between the two, you’re doing the opposite: you’re saying to people who are hung up on body image, good or bad, Get over it. There are a lot more important issues to spend your energy on!

Carlin: Yeah, that’s part of it. I’m also saying that it ought to be so easy. If something so powerful and enormous, with the intensity and brutality of apartheid, can be taken apart, it seems that something that’s all in our minds should be easier to take apart. Yet women seem to keep putting themselves through all kinds of misery—which they could just stop. We could change everything tomorrow if we all just said, Oh, to hell with it, why should we care anymore? A few businesses would flounder for a little bit, but on the whole, life would be easier!

Hesse: Do you get mail from people who have been to the show?

Carlin: Not often, no. People come and speak to me after the show. Or if people see me on the street, they always come and speak to me. Everyone is very warm and friendly.

Hesse: Do you sense that people feel close to you because they’ve spent time with you while you were naked?

Carlin: Yeah, they do. People feel that they know me really well, and they tell me things. They’re just so open about their own feelings. People—total strangers to me—just walk up and put their arms around me and feel as if there’s nothing odd about it at all. And I find it lovely that’s what we’ve created together in the space of an hour and fifteen minutes. That we’ve made intimacy among strangers and that people feel love for someone they knew nothing about an hour earlier is very wonderful, very sweet. People will tell me, “When the show started, I just thought that you looked so gross, so disgusting, and by the end of the show, I just thought that you looked so beautiful!” And I think, Well, they must really feel comfortable with me to be able to tell me something like that.

Hesse: I didn’t find your being naked distracting at all, after the initial novelty wore off. It is pretty rare to see someone, of any body type, completely naked on stage for such a long time, but in this case, it’s in context, and the nudity becomes, in a sense, the costume.

Carlin: I’ve had that comment before, that my nudity becomes the costume that my character is wearing. Jodie is an artist’s model, and nudity is integral to what she’s doing. You were talking about the novelty of it, and how you don’t see many naked bodies performing on stage or anywhere else. Well, I think that we all secretly wish that we could see more. I think we all would love to look at one another, in one of these open changing rooms at the swimming pool or somewhere, but it’s so not okay. We carefully avert our eyes and make sure that everyone understands that we’re not staring. And yet I think there’s a sort of yearning in us to see one another naked. It’s partly just interest—not a prurient interest, necessarily—but a natural sort of interest in the human body, because every person has one and lives in one. I think that it’s quite a lack in our society that we’re not able to look, and that’s part of what I want to give. I say to people, This is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to sit, be comfortable, and gaze and gaze at somebody else’s naked body, and nobody is going to stop you or think anything bad of you for it. You can look wherever you like, for as long as you like. And you can listen or not listen: you’re the observer. I think people like it.

Hesse: Do you think the United States is especially uptight about nudity?

Carlin: I think that this country still has a very strong puritan streak. I hadn’t been in America that long when I started telling people about the show and how I was going to do it naked. That seemed to be really startling to people. I had a European sensibility about it, and I didn’t think that it would be particularly surprising. Friends of mine in Europe didn’t think so. The United States is just a different culture, one that is still a little held back, but in the end I decided to go ahead.

Hesse: What next for you?

Carlin: A new play commissioned by the Public Theater in New York, on the strength of Jodie’s Body. I hope that they will produce it. It comes out of the time I spent in India working for Mother Teresa in the Homes for the Poor project in Calcutta.

It’s like Jodie’s Body in that experiences are woven together. But there are nine characters in it, so it’s much, much bigger than Jodie’s Body, and it has more of a real story.

Hesse: Will you perform it as well?

Carlin: Oh yeah. I write only so that I can act. Acting is absolutely my top thing.

Hesse: Will you continue to tour with Jodie’s Body?

Carlin: Yes. I have performances scheduled, mostly at colleges and women’s conferences.

Hesse: I haven’t asked about your personal life. Are you married, single?

Carlin: I’m with somebody, not married, but in love. He’s a South African. He’s in New York. He came to see the show and he loved it. All my friends made the obvious comment: “Well, he’s seen you naked, so at least that hurdle’s over with!” He called and asked me out. That’s how we got together. He’s a performer and a writer. He’s wonderful. He’s a very, very brilliant man.

It’s funny because I used to say when I was a child that I wanted to marry a South African. And here I am, nearly fifty, and at last the South African has appeared!

Hesse: Do any stories come to mind about a particular performance or audience?

Carlin: Mmm . . . Rather a sad one, actually. It was in North Carolina, I think. There was someone whispering way up in the back of the audience as I was performing. It went on for a bit, you know, and I just sort of carried on. Then there was a sort of a scuffle, and somebody was obviously leaving. I thought somebody had been feeling ill and had to go. After the show I stayed to answer questions from the audience. One of the people at the back apologized to me for the person “who had been saying those terrible things.” So I said, “Oh! What terrible things?” Then the person realized that I hadn’t heard and just said, “Never mind.” But I was terribly curious, so I asked afterwards, and apparently a young man in the costume department had been sitting there, just letting forth a stream of invective about how disgusting I was. He was really, really upset, and kept it up until the people around him finally said, “Shut up or leave.” He just couldn’t handle it at all. He was calling me a pig, and things like this, really, really an upset person. The audience thought that I could hear him, which, of course, upset them dreadfully.

Hesse: And he was from the costume department?

Carlin: Yeah, when I found that out, it seemed almost a joke, as if maybe he was saying, Why do I have to sit through a play without any costumes?!

Hesse: I guess that it’s good to warn everyone about the nudity, then, in order to prevent such a situation. But I can’t help feeling that all of the press focusing on the “naked lady” somehow cheats the public out of knowing what the play is about before they decide whether to buy tickets.

Carlin: I feel that. I wish that people wouldn’t make the nudity such a huge, major feature. I guess people think that it’s going to sell the paper or that it’s going to draw people to come and see the play. But as it goes on, I get more and more fed up with it. I would really like to see a headline that just says, South African Play Celebrates the Fall of Apartheid, without a single word about anyone being naked. ©

After twelve years as a Sacramento radio broadcaster, ELAINE HESSE has found her niche as a freelance writer and reporter. She lives in Sacramento with husband Bob, son Ryan (four years old), and Ryan’s six imaginary dinosaur friends (all girls). This is her first nationally published magazine article.

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