Review: THEMBIKILE Mtshali Jones is no stranger to the stage. Her award winning production, Woman in Waiting of international acclaim, graced the stage at the Athenaeum on July 7 as part of the Second Season of Solo Theatre, hosted in collaboration between the National Arts Festival, Mandela Bay Development Agency, the Athenaeum and Numb City Productions.

The Second Season of Solo Theatre presented performances by artists experienced in creating work that is intimate and powerful and with which South Africans can embrace and celebrate their right to individual expression.

Most know Thembi as “Thoko” from Sgudies Nice, a local television comedy show broadcast on SABC 1 in the 1980s, and as such she will always be an iconic representative to any young black South African adult of their early years. Her appearance in the Iphi Intombi production of the same era was famously received across one of broadest South African demographics in history at that time.

Delicately framed and ready for action later that day, Lee, Thembi’s manager, expressed how emotionally exhausted Thembikile was from consecutive performances of her life story, Woman in Waiting, at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. I only realized during the show, and in the context of this, the level of personal energy, she somehow retains for artistic expression on stage.

As the curtain opened, an empty man-sized box on stage stared blank at the audience – one could somehow feel a heartbreaking story was about to be told.

Fade to black.

The relit stage opened with mellow Xhosa chanting in the background. Thembi, now appeared visible inside the open box, moaning and groaning – an infant in her mother’s belly awaiting birth. Slowly, she emerges, and then hastily jumps to her feet to introduce herself in her mother tongue, chanting her clan name gently, as if presenting herself respectfully to her elders.

It was humbling. As a young Xhosa woman with a western background and regretful lack of familiarity with too much of my culture, her birth depiction was beautiful. Thembi later validated the deep sentiment I felt, within her performance – expressing the significance of one needing to know who they are and how much of oneself is grounded in ones roots: “There is nothing as rich than knowing where you come from”, she affirmed.

 As a young girl, Thembi arrives in Durban to live with her mother and begin attending school. In the central business district, where her bus stops, she is shocked to realise that every “white person” she encounters, is a “chief”. In her home village, you see, only one person has a car – the chief. Here in the city, this is true of all white people. This scene centered on the difficulties of a young black South African child beginning their primary education at a multiracial school, being taught the Jack and Jill rhyme – a stark contrast to growing up in a rural village. As a child plunged into a sudden abyss absent of personal cultural relevance, she fails to relate.

Immersed in emotion, I cringed at the reality of the humiliation apartheid inflicted. As a child, Thembi went to work with her mother, a domestic worker. She recalls so desperately needing the bathroom, that she used “master’s” toilet.  To her surprise, the door was pushed open, while she, sitting exposed, was interrogated as to who she was and why she was using the toilet by “a white belly” in her face – and abruptly told that wasn’t allowed. That moment stayed with her – the day she discovered the inexplicable representation of a toilet. Thembi watched her mother being scolded until her pride was sufficiently diminished – no longer the courageous, respected head of home Thembi had thus far only known.

Thembi was later to follow in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a domestic worker herself. “I gave my love to other people’s children, cared for them, watched them become grown men and woman but at the same time feared for my own children”.

Those same children, “some cared for with my heart and some with my hands” would be the children Thembi would later fear impacting on her own.

Thembi’s message was painful to receive. The significance shared is that belief in oneself validated by others becomes self-affirming and thus transformative. It causes dishwashers to audition for theatre.

Beautifully performed, the audience walk Thembi’s life.

- By Sibongile Sontsonga