Sello's landscape of change
Sello Maake ka Ncube, the biggest name in James Ngcobo’s star-studded adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel, says acting for black people in this country is often so demeaning that it is like work fit only for ‘kaffirs”.
Talking to the Mail & Guardian inside the Arena at the State Theatre in Pretoria, where he is performing the role of Baroka in Ngcobo’s play, Ncube says that the lack of nuanced roles in the theatre and on television, as well as the shortage of black writers telling black stories is the very reason he left for England in 2001, but it is also the reason he is ‘back for good”.
‘Leaving for England was my saving grace, it was like divine intervention,” he declares.
‘At that point I thought, this country’s going to kill me. I cared too much, but I felt like I was screaming in the wilderness. The things that caused me to leave are still prevalent now. I mean I’m an African in South Africa and yet everything that says I’m African is at the backburner of my being. And yet an Englishman in England can easily experience his culture if he goes to the theatre. When I did Othello in England, it was the 400th anniversary of Othello. We haven’t [adequately] sourced our history and put it on stage.”
Ncube’s frustrations had been a long time coming. He confesses that he almost quit his craft in 1989. ‘I found myself performing in plays where I was the only black in the cast, performing one-dimensional characters.”
When he came across a collection of Can Themba’s writing at a bookshop in Hillbrow, it was like getting a new lease on life. He was inspired to pen a one-man show based on Themba’s work and performed at the Market Theatre Laboratory in 1990. A few years later, he took on the role of Philemon, a character from Themba’s tragic short story The Suit — it was to be the late Barney Simon’s final work. Then in England in 2005 Ncube would portray Can Themba in Who Killed Mr Drum? The stage adaptation by Paul Robinson of Sylvester Stein’s memoir of the Fifties ran at London’s Riverside Studios. Ncube’s performance was hailed as ‘superb”.
Listening to Ncube speak passionately for the better part of an hour about his current role, one gets the impression that this is a significant moment in his career, and one that ties in with his strong views on transformation in the theatre, an issue that has recently come under the spotlight in the wake of Lebo M’s outburst at the Naledi Awards.
Of course, it is Ncube who led the cast of The Lion King, as the alpha male Mufasa, here and in the United Kingdom for months. But one gets the feeling that it is a chapter that is behind him now.
He also downplays the roles he has played as a TV actor as minstrel-like, including his claim to fame as the blue-blooded business mogul Archie Moroka in Generations and his current portrayal of newspaper editor Stan Nyathi, in Scandal, saying that it’s just him, ‘doing what he has to do”.
Nevertheless, a fine actor like Ncube would bring more depth and intensity to the role of Nyathi than his predecessor Luthuli Dlamini could. But now Ncube is excited about having the opportunity to tell a ‘black story” by an esteemed African author on the stage. ‘It doesn’t happen too often that someone gets an opportunity to work on something that has the resonance of a culture you know. For me, having done Shakespeare, [this] is like doing it in a way that speaks to you.”
Soyinka’s imagery in the play takes idioms from the Yoruba culture and transposes them into English, thereby enriching the language even further. His bastardisation of the two languages metaphorically mirrors the tension between modernity and tradition, a central theme in the work. This also mirrors Ncube’s view of his career as an actor.
While he may complain that white theatre practitioners were only too eager to import English work after the demise of the cultural boycott, he himself has played several characters from the Bard’s oeuvre. While in England he was approached by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to portray Othello, a decision he says was met with subdued rumbles from black English actors. ‘They didn’t complain too loudly,” he says. ‘Because otherwise they would have been looked at as little niggers fighting for scraps.”
He balks at my question about the lifestyle he led in England, revealing only that ‘it was a simple life”. Most of it was spent reading and studying for his master’s in screenwriting, which he received from the Leeds Metropolitan University.
Although he also portrayed Nelson Mandela in one of the four radio dramas he did for BBC World, he still mentions plans of staging Macbeth. ‘I’m at an advantage, more than white actors who are trapped in the English language,” he says. ‘Being a performer I understand that language is a key to a culture but there is another reality for myself.”
That other reality for Ncube is in the stories he has sought to tell, primarily as a writer, director and recently as a screenwriter. One of his early works as a director was 1998’s Kozekuse Bash, which celebrated the poetic nature of scamtho as it was being revitalised by kwaito culture. He also directed Komeng, about an initiation school, Closer written by Patrick Marber and redirected Woza Albert, which was written by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, and Barney Simon. Currently he is working on screenplay about a womansing boxer who was the product of a rape, which he might turn into a play before making it into a movie.
On his long-term plans and role in the theatre Ncube was somewhat vague, saying: ‘What I know is that I will be part of what the cultural landscape is going to look like in this country. I want to put out something that will resonate, like Gibson Kente. We might not realise it, but he did an immense amount of work. But a lot of groundwork still needs to be done.”