Another chapter of success
Actress goes from strength to strength
IN 1993, American Fulbright Scholar Amy Biehl was murdered in Gugulethu by a mob. Author Dr Sindiwe Magona discovered that one of the murderers was her neighbour’s son.
In response, Magona wrote a fictional memoir, Mother to Mother, as a “heartfelt letter from one mother to another” to Amy Biehl’s mother.
Actress/singer/TV star Thembi Mtshali-Jones approached the Baxter with the idea of adapting the play for the stage.
The result is Mother to Mother, a one-hander with Mtshali-Jones which is premiering at the Baxter on September 15. It will be on until October 10 and is directed by Janice Honeyman with set by Dicky Longhurst.
Mtshali-Jones was stunned when she read Magona’s book and the insights it provides. We know about the victim (Amy Biehl) and her story, but what about the perpetrators? The notion of good versus evil hovers on a thin edge. As a mother, she empathised with the pain of Linda Biehl and the mothers of the murderers.
In December 2007, Mtshali-Jones approached Baxter director Mannie Manim and asked him if he thought there was a play in the book.
“A few weeks later, he said that he loved it. ‘Okay, we will work on it.’ Then he called and said, ‘we have a slot – who would you like to work with’ and I said – Janice (Hon- eyman),” said Mtshali-Jones.
The association between Mtshali-Jones and Honeyman goes way back.
“I think I have done about five productions with Janice. Mannie was saying, ‘this is my last new production at the Baxter’. (Manim retires as Baxter director at the end of the year). And I said, ‘I am glad, because I did my first play with you when you were running the Market Theatre in Johannesburg’.”
Indeed, Mtshali-Jones has made her mark in theatre over four decades. “I am tur ning 60 in November,” she murmurs.
She was born in 1949 and grew up in Ulundi, near Durban. Her schooling was interrupted when she was 18 and fell pregnant. She dropped out of school to support herself and her child. Her mother was a domestic worker and MtshaliJones followed in her footsteps.
Mtshali-Jones always loved singing at school. Her employers read about auditions for Welcome Msomi’s UMabatha – a Zulu adaptation of Macbeth – at the University of Natal and urged her to enter.
That was 1971. The following year, the production went to Lon- don. On her return, Mtshali-Jones went back to her job as a maid.
In 1973, she ditched the domestic work and went along for the second tour. On her return to South Africa, she nabbed the lead role in the musical Ipi Tombi. She joined the original cast when it toured Europe and the US.
After the show closed, and with the help of Abdullah Ibrahim who was living on New York, Mtshali Jones and colleagues from Ipi Tombi formed the Freedom Singers. She worked with Hugh Masekela then toured with Miriam Makeba.
In 1983, she came back home and started her TV career. “That was something that wasn’t there when I left in 1976. You do theatre to feed your soul and TV to feed your pocket.”
Her TV credits include the series Stokvel and an Emmy nomination. She has done feature films and is the co-owner of a production company, Spirit Sisters, which produces the weekly TV magazine series The Power Within.
Mtshali-Jones stitched the stories of her life together in her onewoman show, A Woman in Waiting. It has been staged at the Grahamstown Festival, Artscape, Edinburgh, Bermuda and Toronto.
One night, when she was on stage at Artscape, an Englishman saw her perform. After the show, over drinks at the Waterfront, they were introduced by mutual friends. They fell in love, married and settled here.
That was nine years ago. Woman in Waiting (written and directed by Yael Farber) has kept her busy with perfor mances at international festivals and events. She has also been a key member of Truth in Translation, a play about the translators at the TRC set to an
Aevocative score by Masekala. This work, directed by New Yorker Michael Lessac, was first staged in 2006 in Rwanda. It played in Cape Town and at the Edinburgh Festival, in the US, Sweden and Ireland. Its most recent tour was to the Balkans last year.
Last year, Mtshali-Jones performed at the Baxter in the epic play, Cissie. And now she will go solo in Mother to Mother.
“It is a play which should resonate with all mothers – black, white, whatever. No matter how you raise them, you never know what your children will become. They seldom become what you want them to be,” she reflects.
“But ultimately the story is one about hope and forgiveness”.
Mother to Mother is on at the Baxter from September 15 until October 10. Tickets from Computicket.
FEEDING HER SOUL: Thembi Mtshali-Jones stars in Mother to Mother, a play about hope and forgiveness.
PICTURE: ROBYN COHEN