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 7as 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
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.