To explain Jemma Kahn means having to explain kamishibai, and to do that we have to travel far from the uncomfortable blonde chairs in the hip café in Cape Town where she and I are sitting – all the way to Japan, circa 2008.
Kahn had “no interest in Japan culturally at all” but she had applied to teach English there anyway because despite having been one of the stars of her Wits drama class, the calls from her agent in the year after graduating were perilously few and far between.
For two “horribly traumatic” years, she lived an hour away from Hiroshima in a little town of 40,000 people whose primary industry was the manufacturing of ship windows.
She was never able to escape culture shock: “I was terrified of pavements and insects and people and cars. Everything had that nightmarish quality… and I went nuts.”
But it wasn’t all bad. “My eyes got to see things they had never seen before” – and, in this most geometric of countries, her latent preoccupation with lines, boxes and repeated images came to the fore.
An elderly part-time teacher at her school took a kindly interest in her. “Because I was in such shock I didn’t want to participate or interact with anything but he just kept chipping away at me,” she recalls. It was “a very cinematic friendship”: he would teach her Japanese after class, or take her on his motorbike up into the mountains to show her a flower that only blooms for one week of the year.
And he also introduced her to another old man, Roukda Genji, a veteran performer of kamishibai – “paper drama” – when a stack of large cardboard-backed pictures in a box is used to illustrate the tale being narrated.
“The first time I saw it, I was like fuck, I have to [do this]. It was drawing and performance – the two things that I liked.”
After three years in fine arts at Wits, a department riddled with “artists who didn’t want to teach”, she had switched over to drama which immediately gave her the focus she had craved.
“I had only done fine art because it was slightly more palatable, I thought … than drama which is really fucking scraping the bottom of the barrel,” she laughs.
The day she met Genji-san, he informed her she would have to create a kamishibai story about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima – which she had to perform at the Hiroshima memorial in several days’ time. She duly did, and in the months that followed, she accompanied him around the region in his van with a stash of stories they would perform.
Then she met an Irish punk musician in a backpackers in Hiroshima. After one night of knowing him, she informed her school she was going to nurse her mom through chemotherapy in Joburg and quit her job.
Instead of returning home, though, she proceeded “to lose my mind in Galway with a bunch of punks.”
“They were all on the dole; none of them owned a toothbrush. It was like the complete opposite of Japan. It was a great weight-loss thing, though, because I did speed for three months.”
She transferred all her money into the Irishman’s account. Luckily, “he was a lunatic but he wasn’t dishonest: I got it all back bar the 400 euros to record his first album which was called I Fell in the Bog and Saw God”.
Realising she “had made a terrible mistake” she returned to Joburg when her visa expired. Back home, “everything just unknotted and I was much happier”.
She designed sets and costumes and, in 2011, performed in Jane Taylor’s “fantastically strange” play, After Cardenio. A year later she launched her first kamishibai production, The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories for Consenting Adults: a collection of seven stories written by Gwydion Beynon. The response was electric and Butcher would have sold-out runs all over the world, including Cape Town, Grahamstown, Perth, Brighton and Amsterdam.
“I didn’t realise at the time how valuable it is to do it in South Africa where no one had seen it before,” she says.
Her fine arts background has also been a huge advantage in a theatre scene still dominated by a “very repetitive aesthetic”. “Theatre in this country is always blue or brown. There are no other colours. People never put yellow on stage.”
Her second kamishibai offering, We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants, was first performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown earlier this year. Again, it’s seven stories, but this time themed around the seven deadly sins, and each one written by a different writer.
It’s hot and raunchy – and those are just the illustrations. In between the storytelling, she and co-star Roberto Pombo get up to antics that would make a burlesque dancer blush.
“You know that you’re onto something fresh if it feels unsafe,” she says. “Our director, Lindiwe [Matshikiza], said she likes Roberto and I because we’ll do anything. A lot of performers don’t have that; they’re kind of precious.”
Aside from the strong team behind the production, she says, “It also looks sexy, it looks edgy, it looks fun, and that’s calculated to achieve a long run so we can make some money from it. I thought I had made something very avant-garde and edgy, but I haven’t actually – I’ve made something for grays and gays!” she chuckles. “Women in their 50s fucking love it. And they’re so confused – they’re like ‘I want to have sex with Roberto; no, I want to have sex with Jemma; no, I don’t know!’”
After a run in Cape Town in November, performances are planned for Australia, the Netherlands and the UK next.
And then? Her relationship with kamishibai is set to end soon: “I don’t want to be married to the cardboard box.” But one more production using the medium – this time a single story written by herself – is in the works, followed by a short film.
“It feels like there’s a trilogy of kamishibai that needs to happen. I like threes; a diptych is OK, but a triptych is better.”
In the meantime she’s at the work on the second issue of One Ply – a smutty and cartoon-rich zine she’s co-editing with comedienne Rachael Neary.
“My parents can never read it,” she says. “I don’t know what this urge is to tell everyone really revolting intimacies of my life but it’s happening now. It’s been no different since I was four – it’s an exhibitionism: look at me and love me.”
We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants will be performed in Cape Town at Alexander Upstairs from 30 November – 5 December and Kalk Bay Theatre 7 – 12 December.
An edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 22 November 2015.