South Africa recently lost another icon and the country is still struggling to come to terms with it.
On Monday, South Africa was hit hard by the news of the passing of iconic actress Shaleen Surtie-Richards. She was 66.
The veteran actress was known for her roles in the 1988 production Fiela Se Kind and M-Net soapie Egoli: Place Of Gold and a plethora of other theatre and TV productions.
In this personal tribute, close friend and colleague, Marc Lottering pays homage to his dear friend of 33 years:
Shaleen had a sense of humour second to none. The only thing she loved more than a good laugh was fabulous eyelashes.
I first met Shaleen in 1990. I was an usher at the Baxter Theatre, and she was already a household name, at that stage performing in Juno and The Paycock. The lift door opened and there she was with a huge smile, and magnificent as ever.
I froze in my usher’s uniform, white shirt, black pants, black tie, and a name badge that said, Staff. Shaleen revived me with a ‘Hallo Klim in!’ (Hello, get in). I obeyed. It was one floor from the main foyer to the Main Road level. I would never have this moment again. And so, I seized the rare opportunity. I had a textbook with me. I was in my second year at UCT. I must have asked for her autograph because I heard her ask for my name as she whipped out a pen and wrote, To Marc, With Love, Shaleen Surtie-Richards.
In the years that followed, Shaleen would always be in disbelief when retold that story. And I’ve retold it many times. I will never get over the fact that Shaleen would insist on buying tickets to come and watch my stand-up whenever I was performing in Joburg.
I would hate the fact that she would always let me know beforehand. Because that would just make me nervous as hell. But there she would be. Beaming and proudly waiting for me after every performance, in the smoking area of course. And then there would never be enough time as we swapped jokes and the juiciest of skinne (gossip) stories.
We were the first cast together in 2005 in Janice Honeyman’s Cinderella, at the then Joburg Theatre. It was my first panto experience, and by far my best panto experience. Shaleen played the feisty Fairy Godmother. David Dennis and I played the ugly sisters. Bianca Le Grange played the beautiful Cinderella.
Shaleen quite easily stole the show. Without even trying. Just by casually swinging a magic wand from the Cape Flats and shouting Ka Chaaa! One show ran over time because one of the real live ponies got a tad too excited when he saw the Fairy Godmother. I would not have believed that story if anyone told it to me. But ja, I was there. Few actresses can lay claim to such a standing ovation. Shaleen of course laughed until the entire company was in stitches with tears streaming down our faces.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to her home on numerous occasions. She was extremely private. A massive TV in the bedroom and a lekker (delicious) pot of curry on the stove. Mini-series and cashew nuts. The stuff that dreams are made of. I kid you not.
Going to the shops with Shaleen was a surreal experience. Every man and his dog firmly believed that Shaleen was a close relative.
And she took it in her stride as only a real pro would. Once or twice I have been privy to her putting a forward fan on his place with a “hold on – you can see I’m talking”.
And that would usually be followed by the fan mumbling “sorry auntie”. Which was not necessarily the response that made everyone live happily ever after. If Shaleen was not in a fabulous mood, she would easily come hit back with “but you are years older than me – why are you calling me aunty!”
Shaleen wanted to avoid being typecast. She did not only want to be seen as everybody’s aunty – everybody’s Nenna (the hugely famous and endearing character from Egoli). But she knew that she would never escape that. Regardless of how varied her subsequent roles were, she would remain Nenna to many. I believe that it was a testament to her brilliance. She had that gravitas that could not be taught.
Many South Africans first got to experience that unbelievable gravitas when Shaleen played Fiela in the ground-breaking Fiela Se Kind. Even watching it today, I am totally blown away by how an actress can inhabit a role to such an extent that every single emotion is hard-hitting from beginning to end. An unpretentious Masterclass. She would tell me years later how some other actors of colour had looked down on her for playing the role of a “brown maid”.
She would also go on to say that she was determined to make damn sure that everyone would remember “that brown maid” for the rest of their lives. And here we are, writing about it 33 years later.
We were cast together another time in 2013 in Lara Foot’s adaptation of Scrooge. I will always remember what happened in that theatre every single night when Shaleen walked onto that stage.
Something rarely felt. A Respect. A Reverence. For an Icon. Night after night.
My last chat with my famous friend was on her birthday this year, 7 May. Gosh, she had jokes and funny stories for days. That’s how the conversations usually went. And yes, she would say that she was so very tired of still having to hustle for gigs at this stage of her life. And then another funny story. Until we laughed like we had just watched the funniest movie in the world.