As she tells it, there is no job comedian and actor Celeste Ntuli (39) hasn’t done.
“I’ve been a bookseller, a call centre agent, backstage crew, I’ve done lighting and sound for Gearhouse, I’ve worked at Grahamstown as part of a production crew. Let’s put it this way: I’ve had jobs, but all of those were for paying rent.”
For Ntuli, who plays one of Mpiyakhe’s wives in Isibaya, the reason comedy has taken over her career at the moment is that “it can be done anytime, anywhere. It’s what I can do regardless of production budgets, and ‘being hired’”.
Being in front of an audience is what inspires her the most. “That stage is a huge part of what I am; those who know me will tell you that they are not surprised I’m a comedian. They are just surprised that I am taking it so seriously.”
Ntuli is determined to push her limits. We speak on the weekend she is celebrating her 39th birthday, and she is still pushing herself. But it was also these limitations that probably had a hand in the direction her material would take.
“My first comedy show, in 2005 in Durban, was in church. So they had a list of all these things I couldn’t say,” she recalls. “I couldn’t talk about politics and religion, so the only thing left to talk about was myself. So I just spoke about me growing up in a rural area among eight siblings and getting hand-me-downs from my brother, which made me look like a lesbian. From then on I’ve been an observer of what happens in my life.”
Ntuli describes her writing style for comedy as “speak first, write later”, because it is often only the punchline that she has figured out by the time she gets to the stage.
“The material has to make sense,” she says, “like, what are you saying in a broader sense?”
As to whether she thinks women, because of the struggles they face, make better comedians, Ntuli says: “We naturally deal with a lot of crap. In a day, I deal with four or five things because of patriarchy, so I’m not always going to skip those issues. Men, if you look at their material, are always having fun, and that is something that resonates with their boys’ club mentality. There are a lot who speak of serious issues like race and politics, but I find that being the only woman on stage at night among seven guys, women can still do it all and maintain their femininity. Women are funny in general, because we carry a lot in our lives, minds and handbags.”
Expanding the scope of her career has seen Ntuli take on her first leading role in a movie titled Looking for Love, released at the end of August 2018. “Not only am I the leading actress; I am also the associate producer,” she says proudly.
“It’s a comedy movie released with other comics. It’s funny, romantic and South African in a relatable, international manner,” she says.
When not playing the entertainer, the lockdown actress prefers silence, which allows her to think about life and her future. As for her technique in mentoring, Ntuli says “nothing beats getting to know a person”. But as a far as a formal approach to this goes, she hasn’t thought about it enough yet.