Arts and Culture

Naima Mclean: Identity and 'The Colored Museum'

Ntombenhle Shezi

Naima Mclean, the star of George C Wolfe classic "The Colored Museum", talks about the play and her identity as an African American.

Naima Mclean. (Supplied)

Naima Mclean is a musician, poet and actress who this month stars in the George C Wolfe classic, The Colored Museum, directed by James Ngcobo.

"I had wanted to do a theatre production for a while, not just any theatre production but something that had real substance to it," says Mclean. "So when the audition call went out for the James Ngcobo production, who I’ve dreamt of working with for years, I was the first in line."

Coinciding with Black History Month and showing at The Market Theatre until February 23, The Colored Museum is a satirical piece exploring African-American identity by unpacking stereotypes through several characters in different stages of African-American history. Mclean plays two of these characters – and speaks of the experience as being particularly close to her not only as a black woman but also as an African American.

Which character/exhibit do you play in the production?
The beautiful thing about this production is that James has taken an ensemble approach – with 13 cast members. So it’s less about roles and more about the narrative and the collective telling the story. All cast members play multiple characters along the way and were able to bring their various talents to the production. I am involved in the character narrative of Miss Pat and Topsy Washington and was even able to bring some of my own writing to the production.

Do you identify with any aspects of the characters you play?
Right now I identify with the role I play in the Topsy Washington narrative – as a young, liberated, black women who is clear about where she comes from and where she's going. I identify with the whole play ... it sheds a light on my personal historical context. My father is African American and my mother a South African Xhosa woman. So I am truly African American.

The liberation struggle in the US and South Africa defines how I understand my identity today as a black woman and what it’s taken to be where I am today. I have had to explore the history of my ancestors, who too were part of the slave trade at some point in history.

The word "colored/coloured" is used in different contexts in America and South Africa. Are definitions or labels important?
I'm black. I'm very clear about that. I’ve had to deal with other people's confusion about how to define my race because coloured means two different things in South Africa and in the US. But that confusion was never mine to take on. I have no desire to define myself as one thing in one part of the world and as another in another part of world, but that is my prerogative despite my very mixed lineage.

I think the coloured race was created by South Africans as a way of dividing black people during the oppressive regime but over time has become a race and culture in and of itself and must be recognised as such. Do I think defining race identity is important? Yes. It gives us historical and social context. It is important to understand and be okay with the fact that we are different races, and there is no problem in naming those races. The problems comes with the judgments, as well as a desire to confine those boxes to only five different categories, when we are diversifying more and more every minute. It is the human race's plight to deal with these judgments.

Race still remains a key way of othering and making assumptions in society. How does being "labelled" affect your work?
Well the issue of being "labelled" has formed part of the backdrop of my entire life, especially in South Africa. I believe it’s a result of a people still learning that identities are diverse and that a label is not homogenous. A singular label does not look, speak, live one particular way.

In South Africa people struggled to place my complexion, so couldn't decide if I ticked the black or coloured box and with a name like Naima, that made matters worse. I found myself constantly having to explain how my existence came about. However, I understood that this happens to a country that was cut off from the rest of world. 

For the longest time the majority of people only understood the world in the context of the five races. As an actress, it’s a challenge that we have had to deal with. Most character auditions are written with a social context associated with them. That comes with a demeanour, language, look, etc ... and again if the box isn't ticked as one typically understands it, as an actress you have to work 10 times harder to convince your director.

The same goes for trying to box my music to have a singular racial appeal, when in fact it crosses cultural boundaries. So I've decided that part of my work’s purpose is to begin to break down boundaries we limit ourselves to.

The Colored Museum is showing at the Market Theatre from January 21 to February 23.

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