Mbongeni Ngema: The man, the Zulu, the legend

2013-10-15 11:00

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Theatre master Mbongeni Ngema is back on stage, doing what he has excelled at for years – telling stories richly steeped in South African tradition.

It’s midweek and Jozi’s Market Theatre is packed to the rafters, the audience buzzing with excitement. As the lights dim, a hush falls over the theatre – and when the star of the show walks onto the stage, resplendent in traditional Zulu beshu, you could hear a pin drop.

Mbongeni Ngema (58), the man behind hits such as Sarafina! and Woza Albert, is back on stage after 27 years – his belly somewhat rounder, his face rather more lined, but his presence as powerful as ever. His skin gleaming with oil, he commands attention as the spotlight falls on his frame.

The Zulu, his 90-plus minutes, mostly-one-act play, has been burning inside him all his life, he tells me when I finally manage to pin him down.

‘This story is one I was told repeatedly by my great-grandmother so I have known it before I knew anything else. I wrote a musical also named The Zulu but it wasn’t as detailed as this play. Over the years I have continued to research it and perfect it and this is the result.’

It feels right to return to performing with this work, he continues. ‘I was feeling nostalgic about the stage – I wanted to come back with a good play. I have always loved being on stage and had been thinking about it for years. I wasn’t going to settle for an inferior production after doing such great work.

‘I’ve been busy with other projects but the time finally came for this play to be perfected and shared. So I polished strong material and that’s how this project came about. This story is one I have always wanted to tell in detail. And now I get to do just that.’

So what’s it all about?

You could call Ngema’s play the quintessential Zulu story – it dates right back to the formation of the Zulu nation, sweeping through the battle of Isandlwana where the Zulus defeated the British in 1879.

Throughout the play, Ngema keeps drawing you back to the stories told to him as a young boy growing up in the heart of Zululand by his blind great-grandmother, Mkutshana. She is the main narrator, telling the story to a young Ngema, and the effect is mesmerising.

He seamlessly weaves his way between English and isiZulu, making sure he translates all the isiZulu so no one in his audience is left in the dark.

The set is kept deliberately stark – a simple backdrop of rural KZN – so as not to distract the audience from the powerful storytelling.

The only other member of the cast is maskandi star Matshitshi Ngema – the playwright’s cousin – who pops up every now and then to join in with the singing of traditional Zulu songs.

Considering theatre audiences have changed so dramatically over the years, who did Ngema have in mind when he crafted his play? ‘I’ve always made my plays for the world audience but with South Africa in mind. I’ve also made sure they transpose. If my people can enjoy my plays, then anyone else can enjoy them. I feel this is a story that still needs to be heard by the people here at home – young and old.’

And the reviewers seem to agree. ‘Delightfully dynamic... Ngema personalises the grand narrative and highlights the human quality of national histories with the skill and experience only he can master,’ Percy Mabandu wrote in City Press. General consensus: Ngema hasn’t lost his touch.

How is he handling things?

Over an hour and a half is a long time for anybody to give their all on stage – so how does a guy who’s not far from 60 handle it? Quite well, it seems.

‘Even though I’m a mature actor it’s easier to perform for an audience now than in my youth. I have worked all over the world for many years so I know how to connect with an audience. I’m definitely more in command now. The physicality of my stage presence is in the mind whereas it was in the body when I was younger.’

It helps that he’s so passionate about his subject. Young local writers are too focused on trying to be Western, he says – they just don’t see the beauty and worth in authentic African stories.

‘South Africa is filled with stories and we need to invest in making sure they are told,’ he says. ‘There is a great market internationally for them too. I know this because I am always travelling and have seen the world’s hunger for the type of stories we have. I don’t speak about it as a concept, I have lived it and continue to see it.’

Ngema cites Lebo M’s The Lion King as an example. ‘The world couldn’t get enough of that story – and the same goes for many other productions that tour world stages and are lucrative.’

The Zulu will be touring throughout the country until 2014 and then will move on to international audiences.

Ngema has other plans in the pipeline too – not least of which is his latest venture, Zulu TV, a channel on a new satellite platform called Freevision that is aimed at sub-Saharan audiences and is earmarked to launch at the end of November.

‘I’m very excited about this,’ he says. ‘Young writers, producers and actors will get the opportunity to learn and perfect their art through this channel and jobs will be created too.’

Despite the channel’s name, it will not revolve solely around Zulu culture.

‘This channel is for everyone in sub-Saharan Africa; I want Tsonga stories, Tswana stories and any other authentic African stories. Whoever submits scripts will have to tell stories of their people.’ And who better to judge them than the king of storytelling himself.

Ngema’s stars

The theatre great has had a hand in moulding other illustrious careers

Duma KaNdlovu: Ngema collaborated with KaNdlovu in 1990 to create the play Sheila’s Day, about domestic workers and their one day off. KaNdlovu wrote the play and Ngema was called in to direct it by the Crossroads Theatre Company in the United States. The play has toured the world since 1995.

KaNdlovu has continued to be actively involved in arts in South Africa and is widely known for being the creator of Venda soapie Muvhango.

Duma KaNdlovu

Somizi Mhlongo: The actor, dancer and choreographer has become a household name but it was his role in the movie version of Ngema’s famous creation Sarafina! that launched his career. He also worked with Ngema as a choreographer in shows such as Gert Sibande: The Lion of the East.

Somizi Mhlongo

Khanyo Maphumulo: She worked under Mbongeni’s guidance in Sarafina! and her voice caught the attention of many. Khanyo went on to be a successful singer in the 1990s and early 2000s and her voice is also featured on The Lion King and Tsotsi soundtracks.

Khanyo Maphumulo

Mazwe Mhlongo: He was cast as a dancer for the European leg of Sarafina! and has continued to be active in the arts. He was one of the founding members and an associate choreographer of the multi award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir.

Leleti Khumalo: She leapt to fame playing the title role in the stage and screen versions of Sarafina! and was married to Ngema for 14 years, working extensively with him on other projects. A highly successful actress, she has starred in such movies as Cry, the Beloved County, Hotel Rwanda, Yesterday and Invictus.

Leleti Khumalo

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