Larger than life

2012-10-06 13:28

‘One has to buck up, put your big-girl panties on and walk,” says Tumi Morake of life’s challenges.

She shakes out her hair, bats her eyelashes and takes a sip of green tea.

Our eyes meet and she unleashes her infectious giggle, a huge “hehehehehe”.?

People at other tables glance at her and smile involuntarily.

It’s the same tactic she uses to disarm her audiences, the full-bodied, coy, innocently naughty schoolgirl who reels you in – and then bitch-slaps you with a string of frank, clever and often extremely rude gags about black people, white people and her life as a battle-weary domestic goddess.

At 30, Morake is at the top of her game.

She’s the first woman to host Comedy Central Presents and has her first DVD, Her Story, coming out in time for Christmas.

Much has been made of her being South Africa’s only big-name female stand-up comic and I had set out to avoid taking that angle in this profile.

But in truth, it’s unavoidable. Morake’s comedy is drawn from her life.

In life she is a recently married mother of two baby boys and is – despite her provocatively anti-feminist jokes – very much a feminist.

“There’s a perception that when you’re loud as a woman you’re missing something and you’re compensating for it. I’m saying I’m complete. I wanted children. I’ve got children. I wanted the career. I’ve got the career.”

Born in Bloemfontein to “an audacious mother and a policeman father”, her mother tongue is Setswana.

“I also speak Sotho, but it’s sexually transmitted,” she says.

She attended Wits Drama School and became regarded as one of the country’s top sitcom writers, but was appalled by how little writers earn.

“Stand-up overtook the writing. I got into the corporate world as an emcee and became a corporate whore.

That’s why I’m so tired. ‘Cos literally I must breast-feed, pump, reassure the other kid I really do love you, quick-read Fifty Shades of Grey for my husband and then head off for days away from home on a corporate gig ...”

Opening her set at the Comedy Central recording last week, she did a little jive then clutched her breasts, saying: “I mustn’t shake them too much, I’m still breast-feeding. He isn’t ready for milk shake.”

Before her, most female comedians would vie with the lads on their own terms. While men would preen their masculinity, lampoon gays and make size jokes, women stand-ups would seldom discuss the female body. Morake shattered the mould.

Returning to varsity to do her honours, she found herself engaged in gender studies and developed a now-classic line in menstruation comedy.

She goes there repeatedly during the taping of her hits for Comedy Central. “New Freedom. Stay Free.

They say you can use tampons and go swimming. There’s been these crazy drownings in Soweto. Listen up people. First we need the swimming lessons and then you can swim with the tampons.”

Morake makes light of serious issues. She says: “For me as a woman, menstruation is the biggest site of oppression. It’s the last taboo. Even Aids makes it on to a soapie, but my period is not discussed.”

Her subject matter has drawn a fair share of criticism – and not just from men.

“Women would tell me I really shouldn’t go below the belt. Can’t I be a little more demure?

Black women say can’t you deal with our issues more ... F**k that.

I’m not just a woman.

I’m not just a black. I have layers. I speak about what’s important to me.

“People seem to forget that comedians are not there to be safe. Then we may as well be, no offence, journalists. Our job is to say what isn’t being said. That’s why I got into comedy.”

The honest truth, though, is that she got into comedy because she found herself without a writing job and hoped to make extra money on the side. She says being a woman has helped. In the beginning it was a novelty to have a comedienne on the line-up.

She is full of praise for the male comedians who helped her, and for a husband – Ghanaian screenwriter Mpho Osei Tutu – who isn’t threatened by her independence.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t come in for a drubbing. She uses his nationality as inspiration fora genius set of xenophobia jokes: “While I was making babies I was harbouring fugitives, man ...”

Her favourite career moment happened when she broke the rules at a corporate gig and did her xenophobia gags – even though Graça Machel was there.

“I thought, she is a foreigner married to a South African. I am so going to do those jokes. Like the one where I say that I can’t even give my own child a spanking because it’ll look like a xenophobic attack.”

And Machel loved it. Afterwards, she went over to Morake and hugged her.

She may use men as fuel for comedy, but she says she has had to work harder than them to stay on top.

“Men come on stage and it’s just assumed they can control the room. Women have to prove it.

“And it’s not just a matter of socialisation. It’s also biology. Riaad Moosa can have a baby and can be on stage later that night. I have a baby, I can’t just roll off the maternity table with my stitches still fresh and stand with engorged breasts and two hours of sleep,” she says.

Now, six years in, Morake is packaging her classic jokes and sending them out into the world.

She’s not taking any more big gigs and is heading back into the clubs to polish her new material.

“After six years in this industry, I guess I’ve proven that I’m staying. In fact, I seem to be getting bigger and bigger.”

She gives a dramatic sigh and shrugs, then says: “What’s a girl to do?”

Then the giggle.

» Tumi Morake Live at Parker’s will be screened on Comedy Central (DStv Channel 122) on November 16

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