A responsibility to be great

2011-11-05 00:00

WHEN you’re given great work, you have a responsibility to be equally great. That’s the view of Nondumiso Tembe, who is playing the title role in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella­ at The Playhouse over the festive season.

“Rodgers and Hammerstein were among the most prolific composers of the last century and this work is epic. It requires the best of the best to pull it off,” she says. “We, as South Africans, can be incredibly proud that we’re staging it. From the sets and wardrobe to the orchestra, the actors, the director, we’re putting our best foot forward. Cinderella will be a world-class production.”

It’s the first time that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is being staged on the African continent and with spectacular sets, colourful costumes and an all-star cast, accompanied by the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Playhouse Company is pulling out all the stops to make it one of the must-see shows in November and December.

Twenty-six-year-old Tembe admits to having always loved the musical and has seen the original 1957 version, starring Julie Andrews, as well as more recent interpretations, including a 1997 version starring Brandy and Whitney Houston.

Tembe is sharing the stage with many well-known Durban theatre stars, including award-winning actors, Lisa Bobbert, Clare Mortimer and Darren King. Asked what it was like working with them, she said: “Lisa­ is perfectly cast in the role of Cinderella’s stepmother. Her performance is just effortless and magical. It’s also very hard to keep a straight face acting opposite Lisa. I keep having to look away to compose myself before I deliver the next line.

“Clare, who plays Joy, one of the ugly sisters, is a real scene stealer. And Darren as Lionel, the royal steward, is just hysterical and so right for the part. All of them are just perfect for this show.”

She’s also full of praise for the director­, Ralph Lawson, who she says gives the cast plenty of room to create, while still retaining a larger vision of the piece. “He’s like a gentle shepherd, making his crazy, quirky sheep move in the same direction,” Tembe added.

The Cinderella role is not her first in a musical. Tembe previously played the lead in Annie — the first black actress to lead a multi-racial cast in a major theatrical production in post-apartheid South Africa and she originated the roles of Maria and Thobile in Aldo Brincat’s Leopard Skin and Gcina Mhlope’s Mata-Mata­.

The Durban-born actress, singer and dancer, spent much of her childhood in New York, while her parents, renowned opera singers, Linda Bukhosini (now Playhouse artistic director) and Bongani Tembe (artistic director of the KZNPO), were studying at the Julliard School.

The family returned to South Africa­ when Tembe was 10, but seven­ years later she was back in the Big Apple studying musical theatre at the American Musical and Dramatic­ Academy.

She later studied theatre and political science at New York’s New School University, did her Masters of Fine Arts in acting at the Yale School of Drama and studied classical theatre­ at the British American Dramatic Academy at Oxford University in England.

Since graduating her life has been a hectic whirl. She starred in two U.S. television shows — NCIS: Los Angeles­, which stars LL Cool J and is broadcast on M-Net and in season four of True Blood, which is currently on M-Net Series. She has also just released her debut album, Izwi Lami; My Voice, which has since been nominated for a South African Traditional Music Award in the ethno-soul category and for two Metro FM awards — best female artist and best music video for the single, Just A Guy.

“I don’t think that when I was younger I would have been ready for this,” Tembe said. “I was 25 when my acting and singing career­ started to blossom. I’ve never been big on birthdays, but I can honestly­ say that something happened­ to me when I turned 25. Everything fell into place. I went from being a girl to being a woman.”

Referring to the success of her debut album she says: “When you create your own work and write your own material, as an artist you are completely vulnerable. We open ourselves up to public judgment. So, I’m very grateful that the public has received me with such open minds and hearts.”

Looking ahead, Tembe says she’ll be heading back to the U.S. for the American pilot season from January to March — the period when new shows are cast and shot in Los Angeles — but she hopes to return home soon and tour the country to promote Izwi Lami; My Voice.


• Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella’ is at the Playhouse Opera Theatre from November 26 to November 31. Tickets at Computicket.

• Follow Nondumiso Tembe on Twitter or check out her Facebook fan page.

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