Uncovering one of SA's most-loved drag queens

Tobie Cronje is an iconic South African actor. His various biographies in print and on the internet record over a hundred stage roles; he has won major awards and for decades has been a favourite comic of the nation, having appeared in early Afrikaans television classics like Willem and later Louis Motors and Manakwalanners.

Late last year Cronje dragged it up at the Civic Theatre in Janice Honeyman’s pantomime Snow White.

In it he played the evil queen mother, Hildagonda Hoggaheim, alongside Idols graduate, Bianca le Grange, as the banished princess.

This was not the first collaboration Cronje had done with Honeyman, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Theirs is a winning formula—through improvisation and using universal plots Honeyman has found a way of delighting young audiences with make-believe worlds while satirising some of the real socio-political foibles of the present.

The interview took place in the afternoon during Snow White’s run—and a week before Cronje’s 60th birthday—in a restaurant in the Civic Theatre complex.

Cronje had just sat through an hour of director’s notes. There was despair among the technicians who had to work overtime on a show that requires technical wizardry. As an interviewer I thought: “Don’t push it”. But although tired and overworked, with a night-time show pending, Cronje was charming and forthcoming.

Q. Do you find that as the run progresses you grow into the role, or is your performance perfect from the beginning?

A. One is always trying to perfect it, but it is never perfect. Every night is different because it involves a lot of other people: the band, lighting and sound. Even if my performance was perfect (and I wish it was) the sound guy could make a mistake on one of my cue lines. So it is never perfect.

Q. Have you considered going solo so that you can overcome all that?

A. No—that’s what I like about the theatre, you are working with other people and it is a work in progress.

Q. Theatre in general or this particular production?

A. No production is ever perfect. You are always striving for the perfect show.

Q. Yes, that’s what would drive me mad about working in the theatre, not that I am such a perfectionist. But the need to improve constantly would make me wish that I was a supermarket cashier.

A. I wish that sometimes as well.

Q. So you would value a life in which you had a day job, so you could just get on with it?

A. I am at the age now when I would love it if I didn’t have a job—but had enough money to survive.

Q. What would you do?

A. I would lie on the beach.

Q. You like the beach?

A. I love the sea. I love reading under a tree, listening to music.

Q. Your idea of paradise isn’t one single thing—you have various paradises.

A. I would probably get bored with that.

Q. What would you not get bored with as a life pursuit?

A. Change.

Q. Maybe that’s why you succeed in these roles, roles in which you play something that you are not.

A. I wouldn’t say that I am not an evil queen.

Q. So there is something of you in the role?

A. Of course—ja. No actor can say: “The role is totally not me.” There is always something of “me” in everything.

Q. Do you sometimes find you are acting the role and thinking, “she is hideous”, this is the woman I really do not want to be?

A. Being in the pantomime, you have to keep objectivity because you are constantly talking with the audience—jumping out of character at times. So I don’t think one can really become her. Maybe Snow White and the prince can really become the part but they are different kinds of parts.

Q. I am actually trying to find out how comfortable you are in drag.

A. I am totally comfortable—because it is onstage. I don’t do drag offstage. I don’t watch television in a dress.

Q. The character of the Dame—is it drag or is it just a man in a dress? There is a quality in the Dame that is different to other forms of drag.

A. Janice always said—when she coached Steven Hicks who is playing the Dame this time—that he needs to accentuate his manliness. He is quite manly. But that didn’t seem to work so she changed her mind. When Michael Richard played the Dame in a previous pantomime he had a low-cut dress and he has plenty of hair on his chest. It was hysterical. Pantomime drag is a kind of send-up, but because I am not very manly I can’t accentuate my butchness. I go for a more drag image and Janice says she likes the times where I break that image. So I will sit wide-legged or with my foot on my knee.

Q. I suppose that is where the humour comes from: a man playing a woman but doing things that are not feminine, doing things women would not do.

A. What I sometimes like to think is that audiences would accept me as a woman and then I break that image for comedy effect. Years ago in a pantomime we had to talk to kids in the foyer afterwards, in costume. A little girl was looking at me and I was talking to people but I was aware of her. I turned to her and I said: “Hello what’s your name?” and she looked at me with hate in her eyes and she said: “You’re a man!”

Q. The South African public knows you so well as a personality, so when people come to the theatre part of it is seeing you, who they know so well, in these various incarnations. Are you happy with what you’ve achieved in your career?

A. I have been very fortunate because I have played a wide variety of roles. I hope it gets even wider. I think because of my physicality, what I look like, what my voice is like, because I am tall and skinny, I can’t get away from that—people always recognise me in whatever I do.

Q. You cannot ask people if they would like their life to be different but would you have liked to be a different kind of actor?

A. It doesn’t bother me. I would love to have played Hamlet. It’s not impossible but it would have been a very alternative production. Now I am too old.

Q. You are a natural comedian.

A. Yes, but meet me at home and then I am quite boring, a natural bore.

Q. You can’t be in this for the money—but perhaps you are in it for the costumes. You have worn some really great frocks in the pantomimes you’ve done with Janice.

A. I said previously I am quite comfortable doing drag, but actually I am not comfortable. It is always a pain. Dresses are hot and uncomfortable and there is always a draft up your gusset. Janice came into my dressing room and she said: “Don’t worry next year you are going to have one costume.” I said: “Thank God!”

Q. Do you watch your old work? Do you have copies of everything you have done?

A. I haven’t got copies of everything. In the old days theatres didn’t make copies. They don’t make them now. But I had all the episodes of Willem that Manie van Rensburg directed, but over the years friends borrowed them and didn’t bring them back. So I have only got a few now. If you look at them now they are dated. The pace was slower in those days, and things were simpler.

Q. Well we weren’t moving as fast as we are now.

A. Maybe there was a bit more depth because of that.

Q. Some Afrikaans products may have had the luxury to work with depth. There was a committed Afrikaans audience, dare one say comfortable, financially secure. They could have their culture the way they wanted it.

A. In a sense we were forced to create our own work, whereas the English actors had to copy overseas trends.

Q. How do you feel about the fact that your work has been an important part of the history of Afrikaans culture?

A. I don’t know what to feel about it. I don’t really think about that. Working with younger kids—they don’t know. I was trying to explain to somebody about the arts councils. Kids today grow up without knowing what Pact and Capab were.

Q. Morality has changed. This kind of cross-dressing couldn’t have happened 20 years ago.

A. Well I did pantomimes more than 20 years ago. In Durban for Napac, in 1977 or 1978.

Q. Do you recall seeing it as a child, say in the 1950s and 1960s?

A. No. Not with my family. They were quite conservative Afrikaners.

Q. Where did you grow up?

A. In Germiston. I must admit my parents took us to ballet and opera and in those there are always cross-dressing characters. And it sometimes happened in the circus. The clowns would sometimes cross-dress. The tents were pitched in an open plot in Primrose, near where I grew up. The circus was a big influence in my upbringing. I never enjoyed the animals, but I was always fond of the human aspect.

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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