Ahead of the Queen Sono premiere, Helen Herimbi talks to cast members Vuyo Dabula and Khathu Ramabulana about their roles in this hot new series.
Vuyo Dabula is lying across the bed with his brogues atop a white fur throw. The scene is deceiving because on Queen Sono he plays the most woke character – Shandu.
Dabula gets up from the bed inside the penthouse where a Queen Sono press junket is taking place and takes a seat on a low chair.
Shandu is a former spy who traverses the continent, involved in covert missions. With him is a devoted army of hardened rebels and his second-in-command, Bulabele.
The latter is played by Otto Nobela, who you may remember as the colourful criminal from another one of Kagiso Lediga’s creations, a film called Matwetwe. Shandu and Bulabele share an intimacy that isn’t often portrayed on screen. Shandu is his brawn and his brother from another mother. The familial love between them is palpable.
“Shandu is genuinely oriented to be about brotherly love,” Dabula says, leaning in towards me.
“He translates that to Bulabele, and Shandu is this hero to him. Off set, when we weren’t shooting, it was easy for us to connect on a relaxed level. We joked a lot and could relate to each other. We talked about how we were going to go and chill together after we’d finished shooting.”
I ask him if they’ve hung out since wrapping up the series.
“Aaah, no,” he exclaims and then laughs. “We’ve got unfinished business.”
Another interesting relationship is between Shandu and Ekaterina (played by Kate Liquorish), a badass Russian family business heir who employs Shandu for her own duplicitous reasons. The two of them have often differing visions for Africa and these are allegorically expressed through dialogue and actions which involve light – fire, light bulbs, extinguishing and more.
“That political rhetoric is powerful,” Dabula says.
“In real life you don’t often get to see how ugly things get...
“But Shandu doesn’t see how Ekaterina will bring light to the dark continent. He isn’t afraid to burn it all down and start over. It becomes more colourful and complex because he knows you die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.”
Dabula is well known for his role on Generations: The Legacy and as the lead in Five Fingers For Marseilles, but most Africans will relate to him as Shandu, a man who sought a new kind of liberation after disappointment from the liberators he tasked and toiled for.
I ask Dabula when he feels the most free.
“There are expectations of me as a man and as a celebrity and, in that, you don’t get to define yourself if you’re not deliberate about it,” he says as he leans away from his chair.
“You can get swept away by what other people think you should be. That can be a prison.
“My son doesn’t stay with me, but, you see, when he sees me and...” he gasps then says: “he says: ‘Daddy!’ and he runs and hugs me, I can see that he thinks I’m this great dude. He’s sure of it. I don’t play a character with him. I am just myself. For me, there’s nothing that makes me feel more free than those moments.”
Kicking it with Khathu
“Kha-thu-tshe-lo,” he enunciates each syllable with a mischievous smile. “That one is a bit sketchy.”
He is no stranger to the public as the actor is professionally known as Khathu Ramabulana. But when he says his full name in reference to how he approached his character in Queen Sono, I get the sense that he poured all of himself into the job.
“My name is from the Bible,” he tells me. “It means the good Samaritan.”
Ramabulana’s character, William, is a good guy and it seems Queen Sono (Pearl Thusi) has it bad for him.
William worships the ground that Queen walks on, but both parties are intent on pretending they are just best friends. Hmkay...
“I think the reason I was cast for that role was because it was easy for me to fit into that mould,” he says.
In addition to appearing on TV shows such as Scandal! and Generations: The Legacy, Ramabulana was in another Netflix original, Shadow.
In it he starred alongside Amanda Du Pont and Pallance Dladla, and played a detective who, like William, was perceived to be a good guy.
Ramabulana swears he doesn’t gravitate towards good-guy roles only.
“I never thought of that,” he says, pensively. “I guess how I see it is that I can play a range of characters. But it’s probably a coincidence that that has happened. Are we ever just purely good people, though? William is a very good guy and I’d like to see myself in the same light in some ways.”
William is a psychologist who has been friends with Queen since they were young. In subtle ways, through William and Queen’s relationship, there is a conversation that is to be had about mental health and wellness. As fate would have it, Ramabulana was immersed in that conversation before he landed this role.
“Before shooting Queen Sono, I had come out of writing a piece of theatre called Rapela, with a friend of mine,” he shares.
“It touched on mental health, so I had researched psychologists and patient interactions, and I guess that fitted into everything subconsciously. There’s still stigma attached to mental health and I feel like more can be done to speak about it. But we’re headed in the right direction as the entertainment industry.”
Ramabulana also believes that it’s important for him to speak out about issues pertaining to the entertainment industry.
“I’d say where I am in my career and life there is a sense of purpose that’s growing,” he says.
“So I am on track. My purpose has a lot to do with having a voice in the arts and using that as a platform to say what needs to be said. There are still injustices that need to be dealt with and sorted out, and I feel like the work is not done, but I have a platform to conscientise.”
- Queen Sono premiered globally in 190 countries on February 28 2020.