TIME and time again we hear the story of the struggling artist, but what’s never talked about is their purpose of going through that struggle.
What’s this dream which makes one put on blinkers and focus on this lifelong mission? For playwright Menzi Mkhwane, the answer is building a sustainable theatre company.
“No one has built a black audience for theatre. I mean a black paying audience. I could list so many external problems such as, comedy for instance gets more support more so than theatre and so does poetry. But internally. I will say I have only began concentrating my efforts into offering consistent entertainment which is plotted on a calendar stretching all the way to November next year. I have a five year plan of how we plan to take over Durban with theatre so in a nut shell people will warm up to me,” Mkhwane confidently tells me.
An actor of eight years now, Mkhwane has seen enough in the industry to stir up his passion and desire to create something bigger than himself, from the bottom up. He was part of musical theatre Twist which travelled to Holland and Belgium late 2010 and early 2011. He made his debut with his poppa, celebrated actor Bheki Mkhwane in the production Belly of The Beast.
While in 2016 he won the Best Newcomer award at the Naledi Awards– this was for his portrayal of Sponono in the play A Voice I. Currently, he’s working with young artists who have great potential simultaneously sharpening his skill as a director and an all round playwright.
“People know more about Tira than they do about Menzi Mkhawane’s Master Classes. And I get it. This is why I am closing that gap,” Menzi Mkhwane
Last month he was overseeing a one woman comedy play Babazile, written by Aphiwe Namba starring Penny Ngayo, at the Bat Centre. Babazile tells the story of a lady who sits behind her stall in the market talking to customers about a number of things from Ben 10s and takes you right up to the pulpit of corrupt pastors. Namba asked for Mkhwane to direct the play, to which he jumped at the opportunity of directing his fourth project. “Aphiwe has something that everyone who thinks and desires to be writers has – the natural and tremendous natural flair of writing. Aphiwe can go away for a week and come back with a solid script.”
The play struggled to put bums on seats, as a measly five people attended on opening night. “These are friends including one of my friends Jayshree who is one of the main presenters at East Coast Radio. People received the show pretty well considering that this is my first comedy ever. It was hilarious and doing it with an actress who is only 22 years old and still in training stretched it even further,” Mkhwane says.
“I understand that what I am building which is a life time sustainable theatre company from the ground up is not a short term goal. So in essence it will take a long time, a couple of more shows down the line before I build a solid audience. I’ve been in the industry of theatre and performing for almost ten years now. Not a long time but not short either. In that time I have ‘studied the game’. And from what I have gathered there is no one building an audience of young black people under concentrated efforts in a company setting. I might be the first to do it in this way in the whole country.”
His foresight and ultimate vision allow for the artist’s optimism to freely roam his psyche, despite encounters on his journey. “Do I want to quit when struggles hit me? Without a doubt. But my reaction to those adversities has matured. I’m building a company…building a house that will revive theatre in Durban which is dying a slow death. No one else is a role model. I’m modelling the role for myself. So I never get surprised when extreme challenges new to other people hit me hard.”
Working with young people who don’t have a strong pull to get enough audiences could also contribute to the reason for the paucity of theatre goers in Durban. But Mkhawane believes in the young talent so much, he doesn’t want to use that as an excuse. He believes casinos are the perfect place for Babazile, he’s earmarked Izulu Theatre inside the Isibaya Casino as a platform to try.
“It’s hard to weigh the reaction of a city that hasn’t been offered consistent black theatre around the clock from all types of genres in theatre. The fact is no one is doing that. People know more about Tira than they do about Menzi Mkhawane’s Master Classes. And I get it. This is why I am closing that gap. I’m smart enough. Infact intelligent enough. Experienced enough. Influential enough. Young enough in terms of energy to drive. And just in the right head space to offer Durban audiences better theatre from black producers. So the answer is broad. They haven’t been given great quality and nothing has been communicated to them enticingly enough for them. I’ve rolled up my sleeves and through my growing influence on social media I’m offering all of that in growing degrees of perfected execution. We still make mistakes and learn.”
Currently Mkhwane is co-director together with award winning director and writer, Samson Mlambo on a play Shoe Man that opens in two weeks at Bat Centre. It stars Anele Nene, who depicts all the characters in the story.