The country is still under level three lockdown when we speak in February, yet Rami Chuene is in high spirits. “It’s been difficult but, thankfully, when you are a generally positive person, it helps a lot,” she says, reflecting on her mental state over the past year.
“But, yes, positive people get tired as well. There are days when you just don’t feel like doing much but you just carry on with life. Every day the plan is to do something amazing. But sometimes doing something amazing is choosing to rest.”
She speaks of work “being weird”, a reference to the times she hasn’t been able to perform as a singer in front of an audience. She brushes off the moments she has been off screen (Chuene recently appeared in How to Ruin Christmas: The Wedding and Isono after allegedly being written out of The Queen for being too vocal about the production company), but there has also been respite in the form of a translation project.
Chuene spent much of 2020 —and, in fact, some of 2019 — translating Es’kia Mphahlele’s Father Come Home into Sepedi. This was part of a project initiated by Market Theatre artistic director James Ngcobo to adapt the book into a play, Tate Etla Gae, directed by Clive Mathibe.
“James’s vision is that he wants it to be normal for people to go to the Market Theatre and see a show acted out in vernac,” Chuene says. “He’s been pushing that particular agenda. That’s one of the things that kept me sane throughout lockdown.”
Chuene began reading the book in 2019, painstakingly, as a way of readying herself for the task ahead. “His passion for language was a big deal, so I read it a couple of times before the first attempt. It is a very emotive piece of work. I didn’t want to short-change it, dilute it, misunderstand it or misrepresent it,” she says.
“In terms of figures of speech — in terms of idioms — English and our own languages are not the same. The thing with translation is the more you read something, the more you understand it. There are still moments when I’m like, ‘What more could I have done with this book?’”
The play ran at the Market Theatre until 28 February.
Chuene, as outspoken critic of the conditions actors are faced with, has long since mastered the ways in which one’s visibility can be turned into multiple streams of income.
“I never stop working,” she says. “I might not have a job, but it doesn’t mean I’m not working. That’s why they call us freelancers, because we are always floating. Even if I had a contract with The Bold and the Beautiful, I’d still be a freelance artist because … that situation can change. It goes beyond being hired.
“Like, recently, some productions had to stop because of Covid-19 and people found themselves stuck. Others were postponed indefinitely. And just when you thought you had something good going for you, then it’s not there any more,” she says.
“It’s the ability to never stop working, beyond just the pipe dream of wanting to be famous. Everybody wants to be famous, but what else are you doing so that you can stand out when there is no work.”
As well as acting, Chuene, who has recently published a memoir of her formative years called We Kissed the Sun and Embraced the Moon (Ramsgate Records), also does voice-over work, transcribing, teaching, coaching, MCing and live performance. These are the streams that, since her first major role in Backstage in 1995, she has learned to sustain through “missteps, misjudgments and bad decisions”.
“I’ve just tried to let my work speak for itself and it has managed to keep me afloat and I’m grateful for that,” she says.
Chuene mentions actress, author and singer Lucia Mthiyane as having been instrumental in thrusting her into a singing career. “She introduced me to the world of corporates. People are so stuck in the mainstream. They think that if you are not going to perform in Moretele Park and don’t sell 35 000 copies then it means you are not a singer. No, there are people who sing on ships. They do that for years, and they work hard and make money,” she says.
“That’s why a lot of people are always disappointed with the industry because they are always looking at the mainstream way of doing things. A lot of people didn’t know, for instance, that I had a band that I perform with, but I’m not Zahara and I’m not Lira. That’s how I met up with Lucia. She was doing musicals and she was also doing corporate gigs. One day she had double-booked herself and she just said, ‘That’s it. You’re going.’ That’s how it started.”
In terms of acting, Chuene says Lydia Mokgokoloshi has been an inspiration for a long time. “Growing up and seeing someone who spoke my language on TV, and spoke it confidently, made me fall in love with it. It showed me that I could be okay with the person that I am; I could actually give more of myself to be the person that I want to be,” she says.
“There are people like Sello [Maake Ka-Ncube], people like Florence [Masebe] … People like Nokuthula Ledwaba, even though she is younger than me, but she is one of those few people who have always kept the passion going. Sonia Sebide would always help me. Even when I didn’t know, she’d be like, ‘My friend let’s go to an audition.’”
A self-confessed bibliophile, Chuene says reading and attending readings always renews her spirit. “There’s this author called Malebo Sephodi, who wrote this book called Miss Behave,” she says, when I ask her about some of her favourites. “That book unlocked a lot of things and I think every South African should read that book. It deals with a lot of issues: feminism, sexuality.
“Also Kagiso Msimango [author of Unfuck Yourself, Unfuck The World], she is amazing. I’m deliberately giving you South African black women authors. There is a book by Bonnie Henna, in which she talks about how she overcame depression; it’s called Eyebags and Dimples. That’s also a good book.”
She rattles off others, titles and authors like Sue Nyathi, Lerato Mogoatlhe and Happiness Is A Four Letter Word (by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele), sighing with satisfaction at the end of her list. “In terms of storytelling, mam’ Gcina Mhlophe does it for me. I like how she puts in so much passion. You always end up forgetting that she is reading from a book because you are so mesmerised by her use of words, her expressions.”
During Chuene’s first school trip to the Market Theatre (in high school), none other than Nandi Nyembe served as a tour guide, influencing her decision to become a professional actor.
When the conversation turns to the fate of her colleagues, Chuene states that it is up to the government to establish non-partisan structures that will afford actors the unity they need to speak as a united front.
“Because we don’t have a formal structure, it is so difficult for us to come up with a system that is going to sit on a solid foundation,” she says.
“We need that solid foundation and it is the responsibility of the government to give artists that foundation. Absolutely nobody is willing to do that. There is a bit of money thrown around here and there. ‘Do this, do that.’ But there is no system in place. We can build something amazing, but what are we gonna build it on?” she asks.
“Ntate Nathi Mthethwa — I fight with him all the time and I am one of his least favourite people. And it’s okay. At least he knows that we need structures from government.” Chuene adds.
“When you are a doctor, you can’t just open a practice. There are laws you need to abide by before you get there. We can have Zoom meetings and bosberaads and talk about what we want, our hopes and dreams, but they are not sitting on a solid foundation.”