The applause was loud and warm but she felt a twinge of sadness as she stepped onto the stage. It wasn’t the first time singer and actress Thembi Mtshali-Jones was being honoured, but her mind kept wandering to the one person who wasn’t in the audience: her husband, Emrys Jones.
Thembi (69) smiled bravely as she accepted the living legend award at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina in the US in August. In receiving the accolade she joined the ranks of global heavyweights Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey. “It means a lot to me,” Thembi tells us now.
“I’ve been honoured at home but to get this recognition in America is proof I’m appreciated globally.” She can’t hide her grief though. The veteran stage and TV star, famous for playing Thoko in ’Sgudi ’Snaysi opposite Joe Mafela, and MaNdlovu in e.tv’s Imbewu: The Seed, desperately wishes Emrys was still alive to share in her success. “I miss him so much. Every part I had, he was there rehearsing the lines with me. He became a part of every character I portrayed.”
Thembi and Emrys were together for 17 years until a heart attack snatched him away three years ago. It’s the suddenness of his death that still hurts so much, she says, recalling the events of that awful day. She woke up and went to the kitchen of their Cape Town home to make coffee, leaving Emrys asleep in their bedroom. “I heard a noise coming from the bedroom. I thought one of our paintings had fallen off the wall and hit the door.” She hurried back to the room and found her husband on the floor. “I pressed the panic button,” she recalls. “Everything happened so fast.”
Paramedics arrived quickly but Emrys was declared dead at the scene. Thembi felt her world collapsing around her in slow motion. “I was slowly drowning in pain,” she says. “It felt like I was losing my mind.” Three terrible months followed until she decided to go to India to grieve alone. “I went to the mountains to meditate. I realised I’d been bottling things up and I needed to mourn and deal with my loss.”
Not having any contact with the outside world really helped her. “I came back feeling better.”
For years Emrys was known only as the rather mysterious “Mr Jones” to the public and Thembi’s fans. The couple met through mutual friends when Emrys, who was from the UK and 10 years her junior, was in Mzansi on holiday.
“He came with friends to watch my one-woman show, A Woman in Waiting, and afterwards we all went out for drinks. We exchanged numbers and started chatting.” Eight whirlwind months later the couple were married in Cape Town. Before meeting Emrys, a business analyst for a London-based oil company, Thembi had no intention of settling down.
“I came from a broken family. My parents were divorced and I didn’t have a beautiful picture of marriage. I didn’t want to get married.” She had a daughter, Phumzile, from a previous relationship but marriage to the girl’s father was never on the cards. But Emrys was perfect for her, giving her both space and support and staying out of the limelight.
“He would say he didn’t want to be famous,” she says. This year would’ve been their 20th wedding anniversary. “God decided to take him away but I’m grateful for having had that kind of love. Through him I got to know that true love does exist.”
Three years after his passing, the memory of that love still carries her and keeps her going. And being recognised as she recently was in America “motivates me to continue contributing to the industry”. Thembi recently performed in the acclaimed production of Mother to Mother at the National Black Theatre Festival. The play is based on Sindiwe Magona’s novel and tells the story of the mother of one of the men who killed American student Amy Biehl in Gugulethu, Cape Town, in 1993 and her struggle to come to terms with her son’s actions.
Theatre has been Thembi’s first love since she began performing in the ’70s and she has no intention of slowing down. “I’ll act until I can’t read the scripts anymore,” she says. And she keeps reinventing herself too.
“I learn from the young actors. I do my research and change with the times.” Her evolution as a performer has earned her plenty of prizes at home. In 2009 she received the lifetime achievement award from the City of Durban and another from the Arts and Culture Trust in 2015. She was also honoured by the Naledi Theatre Awards in 2016. Playing MaNdlovu in Imbewu has been a challenge, she admits.
“I’ve always played characters similar to my personality but this one is completely different.” MaNdlovu is controlling and over-protective of her sons, Shongololo (Sandile Dlamini) and Zimele (Tony Kgoroge).
“She has given me a platform to research and look around for people who have similar characteristics to her.” And luckily she didn’t have to look too far. “MaNdlovu behaves like an unmarried aunt who’s too controlling and there are people like her in all our families.” But at home Thembi is nothing like her character. She’s a loving mother to Phumzile and a doting gogo to Khanyisile (25) and Luba (16).
“I allow my daughter to be her own person. My job as a mother is to support and advise her but I’m not overbearing. “I do the same with my grandchildren, I don’t dictate to them.” Reflecting on ’Sgudi ’Snaysi, she recalls that back then “African stories were written by white people who didn’t understand us”.
“With ’Sgudi ’Snaysi, the writer allowed [the actors] to make the jokes relevant to the African audience.” The show was supposed to be a single season of just 13 episodes, but it blew up and it pains her that she and Don Mlangeni Nawa, who played Laqhasha, are the only surviving members of the sitcom. “All the other cast members have passed away now. It would’ve been nice for them to be recognised while they were still alive, like I’ve been,” she says. “In the US they embrace older artists. They respect and appreciate them. “They don’t take them for granted like we do in this country. South Africa can learn a lot from the US on how to treat performing legends