This is an interview between Tha Bravado Editor Bonginkosi Ntiwane and multiple award-winning playwright Napo Masheane. The interview took place in late 2021 around the time when The South African State Theatre (SAST) presented TSOGO (The Rise of Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke), a biographical theatre play exploring the life and times of the iconic social and political activist Mama Charlotte Makgomo Mannya-Maxeke (1871 -1939). While the season of the play coincided with her date of death 16 October 1939, this piece fittingly gets published today on what would have been her 151st birthday. She was born in Botlokwa, Ga-Ramokgopa in Limpopo. She is the first black South African woman to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree and is the founder of the Bantu Women’s League in 1918.
Written by Napo Masheane and directed by thespian Mapula Setlhako, TSOGO which means rise or the awakening is a resurrection of one of South Africa’s Pan African, black conscious, and feminist pioneers. “Yes! Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke must rise in all of us, so that all those who come after us can also rise from us,” Masheane says.
The moving play is told through seven actresses who are all also strong vocalists, intensely telling Maxeke’s expansive life before she even got married. The ensemble represents seven portraits of Maxeke, focusing on seven prominent milestones of her life, almost symbolizing the seven decades of her tapestry, against not just tradition and religion, but also patriarchy and politics. “Majority of the girls in the play, I’ve had the pleasure of working with before. And actually some of them have a musical background. So I had to mentor them into becoming actresses,” Masheane says.
The seven actresses are Hazel Mehlape, Zamachunu Mchunu, Tshepiso Madikoane, Thokozile Manakomba, Solani Maswanganye, Ncamisa Nqana and Katlego Tlokana. “People I tell stories about always choose who will best portray them on stage. As I always say; theatre for some of us is not just a church but it is a ritual practice and an initiation process of constantly telling her-story.” The chemistry of the all-female cast felt genuine, as though they were carrying each other on that stage, similar to how Maxeke carried some of her sisters in the African Jubilee Choir while touring abroad in the late 1800s. The premise of the story-arch draws on ‘Re-Birthing- Re-Imagining and Re-flecting’ on Maxeke’s her-story, which is echoed through the seven female voices on stage.
“For every playwright before you write a play you have to flesh it out, you have to decide on the artistic treatment and approach. You need to imagine (from the page) who your character is, what do they want, need, seek and what could possibly be blocking them from that. Then you need to create a world (on stage) for them to exist in which is the defining premise for their existence. Hence in the case of Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke knowing that she lived almost to her 70s, I highlighted seven milestones that epitomised her journey thus in meeting the magic of theatre created seven voices through seven portraits, to be carried out by seven girls,” shares Masheane.
The actresses’ command of the rich Sepedi language was a marvel and through choral and Afrocentric melodies, TSOGO also suggests Maxeke’s imaginative childhood, her coming of age, her undying resistance and resilience, her bravery to travel the world as an artist (chorister) in persuasion of a dream to empower the black child.
Sitting there watching the play, I was personally taken aback and inspired by Maxeke’s story, that well over a century ago this black woman was actually the true definition of being woke. If it’s had such an effect on me as a man, you can imagine how much it would fuel women.
“Whatever Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke experienced in the 1800s still hits home to most of us in the 21st century; so in imaging and knowing who she was I am able to articulate and reflect how all of us overtime (across different eras) are affected by patriarchal standards, political landscapes, academic settings, religious controversies, cultural and traditional norms that have no interest in our true existence. So, every interaction or immediate response during the performance affirmed that we all know, agree and fully understand hers and our journeys. She was us and we are her even today, period!” Masheane says defiantly.
In statement director of the play Setlhako said “Not many know about her as a creative during her life and activism in the 18th century. We need to set up unity of sisterhood in the arts fraternity, which will help raise the next generation of female artists to the next level. We need structures which will help shatter the ceilings of patriarchy and gender inequality in the arts.”
The production is now available for streaming on The State Theatre’s YouTube channel. Click here to watch
Characters, the plot, the director and the cast are determents to a play’s presentation. Honesty from all these elements is what grips the audience.
The rectitude manner in which all these elements approached KHWEZI…Say (my) her name, helped introduce the real Fezekile Kuzwayo to the audience.
On Tuesday night I went out to go watch Napo Masheane’s much anticipated and talked about play which she wrote and directed, at the State Theatre in Pretoria. The decision was not regrettable.
You know when you’ve built trust with an artist’s virtuosity and their brand, whenever they present work to the world, you’re often inclined to receive the work well. Masheane has built that strong bond over the years with her audience. Her current work honours that relationship. Roping in Azah as musical director was a genius move, as the protégée of Dr Philip Tabane’s band Molombo, captured the story of Kuzwayo. It was distinctively African sounds, with strong jazz elements that gave the play a solid foundation for the narration to be told in the most gripping manner.
“…So I was called in after I had been exposed to the story through Kim and so forth,” said Azah. The music director ironically lived in the same area as Kuzwayo’s best friend Kim at some point, and knew her personally.
“The first song that was composed was Baba and I called her [Masheane] I sang it for her while she was driving and I was so excited. That for me was one of the amazing processes. There was another song, The Chant of The Burning, it was at rehearsals…I went out to the toilet and just as I was stepping out, then the song came and I had to run to him [Bhekumuzi Malhlangu, the pianist] to tell him to press the keys…”
Luyanda Sidiya’s choreography was gentle to the eye but moving enough to make you ponder on the message that’s being portrayed. The actors served their purpose and their singing was particularly highly emotional and good throughout. Actress Thokozile Ndimande who played various characters, including Leila who was Kuzwayo’s bodyguard, was one of the stand outs. Including Theresa Mojela and Madge Kola. JT Medupe played Jacob Zuma and was decent, but the character would’ve been stronger had his Zulu been steeped in that thick KZN accent. His lacking in speaking the language, kinda killed off that staunch Zulu-man aura and arrogance that Zuma has and showed during his court appearance.
Tuesday saw the whole cast and Masheane sit for a Q and A session with audience members to talk about the play for the first time since the it opened on the 25th of July.
“I judged her, I don’t wana lie, when the whole trial happened. I read the book, with regular pauses just to take-in what’s going on…when she [Masheane] told me I’ll be playing Kim, then Kim for me became the sister that you always cry to,” said Ntambo Rapatla. Rapatla got to meet the real life Kim, who came from the United Kingdom to watch the play.
“Playing this role gave me a chance to be exposed to what was going on. It also gave me a glimpse into Fekezile’s turmoil during that time. Ummm…and just thinking about many things that had gone through her head, the many things she felt, the betrayals constantly by people she loved and cared for- people who just didn’t believe her,” said Nompumelelo Mayiyane, who played the leading role of Kuzwayo. She played the character with aplomb, and not once did she switch off.
It was notable and quite refreshing how the play was narrated by her, throughout. From her upbringing in exile, to that eventful night where she was taken advantage of by former President Jacob Zuma. Audience members left the Arena Theatre with full comprehension of what Kuzwayo went through, especially times away from the public eye.
Sitting there, watching the play I was perplexed that I was witnessing a depiction of what really happened. That someone who was violated, was the one in hiding and being persecuted by the whole nation. “…No one has ever heard her voice. With other conversations I’ve had with her [Kuzwayo] spiritually,I thought it will be nice for the world to hear her, not hear me or any of us. All of us are just part of her story,” said Masheane.
Rape is a very sensitive issue and I was anxious to see how that scene between Zuma and Kuzwayo was going to be depicted in the play because with an audience largely made up of females, it’s inevitable that someone had experienced this ordeal. But the actual rape was creatively, wisely and beautifully portrayed using a striking red fabric. Mayiyane’s (Kuzwayo) wail after that scene when Medupe (Zuma) left the bedroom was one of the most heart-wrenching pieces of acting I’ve witnessed. Right there and then, I felt the weep of all those who’ve been raped.
A random count of the gender ratio on the night, was about 65% to 35% with women taking up the large number. I was rather disappointed that not a lot of men were present, as I believe men need to see the effect rape has on its victims- not to suggest that men don’t get raped by females or other men.
“As a young man, this work was quite important for me to support a woman in telling her story and for once keep quiet. It was important to be part of this process and be led by a woman, a strong woman like Ma Napo, so that Fezekile’s story could be told. I don’t know if you noticed, in the beginning the women are the ones carrying her coffin and at the end, the men are carrying it and for me, that’s what I learnt. It means it’s our responsibility because we are the problem. The rapist is the problem, as soon as the rapist stops raping, the problem is gone,” said actor Cassius Davids, who played multiple characters in the play.
For actress Nompumelelo Mayiyane, giving Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, better known Khwezi, a voice and face beyond her grave was what lured her into playing the role of the deceased in the play, KHWEZI…Say (my) her name, which opens tonight at the State Theatre.
“I was drawn by the desire to find true resolve with the story beyond the court room. I loved that the story speaks to the person Fezekile was and not just a specific event in her life,” Mayiyane says.
The play is written and directed by playwright Napo Masheane. It’s an adaptation of Redi Tlhabi’s KHWEZI…The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo. “I connect with her artistic nature, her joyous spirit despite various events in her life. Her bravery, I love that vulnerability is not a fear for her,” says Mayiyane of her connection to Kuzwayo.
The actress is an accomplished thespian in her own right, having been part of productions such as Africa Umoja, Songs of Jazz town, Too much punch for Judy, Rock of ages, Mad buddies and Little one.
But she says this will be her first time working with Masheane. “I’ve known her since I was 13 years-old. We travelled to America in a cultural exchange in the arts together. She was a mentor on the project and I was one of the 12 African children selected for the project.”
Another novelty, is her potrayal of a rape victim on stage or camera and say preparing for the role hasn’t been problematic. “Unfortunately preparing for such a role in South Africa is not hard because rape is a reality for so many women here, it surrounds us. We all know at least one or two people in our intimate setting, who have experienced this trauma.”
“I think the challenge and greater responsibility for me is displaying the women beyond these events in her life. So, she’s remembered for who she is, not just a rape victim.”
When the truth becomes a source of shame, something has gone terribly wrong with a society that vilifies one for their honesty. Fezekile Kuzwayo, known as Khwezi, was in that vulnerable position. Playwright Napo Masheane explores her story in KHWEZI…Say (my) her name.
Sitting adjacent the window that allows us a scenic view of the M1 highway, I have a chat with the renowned poet at the den of the old and retired, Mugg & Bean in Killarney, Johannesburg. There is synchrony between Masheane’s mannerisms, the countless vehicles driving past in the background and the lunchtime chatter around us within the eatery.
Throughout her work, Masheane has celebrated women, inspired largely by those in her family. Be it her mother, grandmothers, aunts or cousins- who never treat her like a celebrity. “They see me on TV and I’m still gonna go home and wash mogudu; but with the same breath, they tell me that I’m doing well. But ko hae, they are loud. They inspire me because I listen to their gossip and I put it on stage,” she says.
Her current work, Khwezi, doesn’t veer off the conversation around womenfolk she’s maintained in her career. But this play highlights the strain that women go through, literally at the hands of us men in the form of abuse; be it sexual, physical, emotional or economical.
South Africa has a rape culture that’s among the highest in the world. The police recorded a total of 39,828 rapes in 2016/17, down from 41,503 in 2015/16. An average of 109.1 rapes were recorded each day.
“It’s my best work of all time and the best script ever. I want whoever that walks in, to walk out feeling different after watching the play.”
KHWEZI…Say (my) her name is a play written and directed by Masheane that was inspired by the poignant book written by Redi Tlhabi, KHWEZI…The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo.
“At some point I thought, ‘I’ve written about beauty and image, I’ve written about the 1950s era, the passbooks and the Sophiatown era from a woman perspective (that’s what my thesis was on), New Song was the women’s march and other works’. There are things as a writer that draw your attention.”
Masheane says the stories of Karabo Mokoena and Meisie Molefe, who were both burnt to death by their boyfriends and that she had just done Fat Songs For My Girlfriends, a collection of poems about abuse, were things that inspired her to do something around the story of Ntsukela who was allegedly raped by former president Jacob Zuma. “I was like, I need to write a play about this,” she says biting her lower lip, with eyes squinting out the window.
“…I’m one of those people, I do something, and once I’ve served it or it’s served me, I move on.”
Also, Phumla Gqola’s book Rape: A South African Nightmare came out around 2015, followed by Tlhabi’s. “Also, I remember years ago Kanga and the Kangaroo Court ya Mmatshilo [Motsei] came out, and the idea of doing something[around rape] has always been in the back of my mind.”
By the tenth page of reading Tlhabi’s book, Masheane had already been visualizing scenes and hearing lines. “I could hear dialogue, see stage placements…I was highlighting and marking sections in the book,” she says. Done with the book within days, she told her then bosses at the Sate Theatre, that she wants to do the play Khwezi.
She needed to have clarity on what she wants to say through the play because Zuma was still president of the country at the time. “Because once you’re in, you can’t come out of this.”
Acquiring the rights for the book proved to be a bit of drag as she couldn’t get through to Tlhabi. “I sent her an email and she didn’t respond for about three weeks, then sent another and still, nothing. Only to find that I didn’t have the correct email address.” She ended up contacting her on Twitter.
After a while the two met. “She was like ‘there’s no way I’m gonna say no to you. I know your work’ and there was just mutual respect between us. The minute she said ‘yes’, I started structuring and organising the work because I had already started writing. I then took a leave from work and in the midst of that, the guy [Zuma] was recalled.”
The recall never affected the work itself. “Once I had made that decision, I had made it. Whether he was still president or not I was still gonna do it.”
“I think the level of being scared was better, in bringing me comfort that I’m not dealing with the president, but I’m dealing with the ex-president. Even if he attacks me now, he’s not the first citizen of the country anymore. But also, in terms of the ministers from his cabinet, the shuffle also happened. I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with certain people individually that supported him.”
“As a writer, you get to a point where you either say it or you don’t. The minute you decide you’re gonna say it, you’re not in control of the tone and you can’t cover the truth.”
She had support from State Theatre head, Dr. Sibongiseni Mkhize who told her that if the government want to get to her, they’ll first have to fire him, then fire Artistic Director Aubrey Sekhabi before getting to her.
“So when he was recalled it wasn’t an issue anymore. It was about how do I, do justice to this story. It’s a very serious story-there’s no nice way of writing about rape. It’s not one rape, it’s so multi-layered.”
Masheane views Ntsukela as a brave woman that came forward when most women wouldn’t have, because of fear of intimidation. “We all need to say her name because yes ke Khwezi, but that name was loaned, it’s not her name. So to separate the book from the play, I cancelled out the ‘her’ on the flyer, and wrote ‘my’- she embodies so many of us, so we need to say our names because Khwezi is a name we’ve all taken upon.”
She just left her job as the Deputy Artistic Director at the State Theatre, which she held for a year.“It wasn’t tedious, but there was a lot of administration, logistics-it was almost like project managing the arts daily. I’ve learnt a lot and I appreciate the fact that I did it, also, I think it’s very important for any theatre maker or artist to go on the administrative or business side. I mean, before I even became a poet or got on stage to perform, I was an intern for two years ko Market Theatre.”
Her internship meant getting her hands dirty and learning about technical things such as stage management, lighting, building sets, painting stages and even sweeping stages. “So by the time I got to perform, I had so much appreciation for the stage and for everyone working, especially behind the scene. I knew that someone who makes you tea, is as important as someone who does lighting for you on stage,” says Masheane.
“I’m happy I did it,” she says of her short time at the State Theatre which meant leaving her company Gossip Village Productions, which she’s been running for 11 years with her partners. “You learn about contracts-more than I had known. You learn the language…there’s a lot of bureaucracy, because it’s a government institution. Also, you operate with people at a different level, you no longer just a performer or writer, you’re the person who can give somebody work, so people start viewing you differently.”
“But at some point, I got to say ‘well, is this what I wana do forever?’ and I’m one of those people, I do something, and once I’ve served it or it’s served me, I move on.”
She is one of the few women who’ve now done the 360 degree in the theatre space. From the technical side, admin, directorial and even performance. In 2015 she wrote, produce and directed a play called A New Song at the Market Theatre Main’s stage (John Kani Theatre), her first solo work My Bum Is Genetic, So Deal With It! which came out in 2006 is one of her most popular work including Feela Sista and Fat Black Women Sing just to mention a few. One of her monologues, Mama The Storm Is Outside, was chosen to be performed by leading actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor (of 12 Years A Slave) at Royal Court in London.
Masheane has freelanced as a consultant to almost every theatre in South Africa for almost 20 years now. She is smart enough to embrace the system, yet simultaneously adequately eccentric to disrupt it. She says she wants to be an art scientist and is contemplating a PhD in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies. “The reality is that, it doesn’t matter how much you know until you formalize it,” she says.
Part of her contract as Artistic Director at the State Theatre, was that she would stage a show at the theatre within that year, which will now happen next month when Khwezi premiers. “Actually, I’m happy that I left three months before Khwezi comes in because I don’t think I would’ve gone deeper into it as I have.”
The common thread in Masheane’s work is her provocativeness and she believes this play carries that too, but says Khwezi is her most important work yet. “It’s my best work of all time and the best script ever. I want whoever that walks in, to walk out feeling different after watching the play.”
“If they’ve not dealt with the Fezekile story or rape in any particular manner, they should be challenged, provoked or moved enough, for that hour and a half of the play, to deal with it. I want them to realize the extent of what this does to women. So the hissing, whistles on the street, the situations at work where men use their power to sleep with women…-people should feel the need to change, and for me that’s the premise of theatre.”
She has roped in percussionist Azah, who is a protégée of Dr Philip Tabane’s famous band Molombo, to be musical director. While Luyanda Sidiya who’s known for creating SIVA commissioned by the Standard Bank Arts and the National Arts Festival, will choreograph the play. Both joined the Khwezi production after just one meeting with Masheane, because of the magnitude of the story.
· KHWEZI…Say (my) her name opens on the 25th July to 12th August 2018 at South African State Theatre – Arena Theatre. Tickets available at computicket.co.za
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