MY LIFE IN WORDS

Ac­tress-turned-script pro­ducer Grace Mahlaba (49) chats to us about her colour­ful ca­reer and tran­si­tion from act­ing to be­hind the scenes.

Bona - - Contents - By Kwanele Mathe­bula

Grace Mahlaba on tran­si­tion­ing from act­ing to be­hind the scenes

My ca­reer was kick-started by

the Shell Road to Fame Tal­ent

search. I had read about the com­pe­ti­tion in a news­pa­per in 1985 while still in high school. My two friends and I en­tered as a sing­ing group, but they were elim­i­nated along the way. I made it to top

10. Af­ter the com­pe­ti­tion, we were given a six-month act­ing course at the Uni­ver­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand. Upon my ar­rival, I was en­cour­aged to rather pur­sue drama be­cause my sing­ing wasn’t strong. The course ex­posed me to the Mar­ket The­atre as well as the late di­rec­tor and play­wright Bar­ney Si­mon.

My first drama, Boph­elo

ke Sem­phekgo, launched

my act­ing ca­reer. In 1987,

I fell preg­nant. And, be­cause my fam­ily were staunch Chris­tians,

I was kicked out of our home in Alexan­dra. I then moved to High­lands North, where I worked as a do­mes­tic worker un­til I gave birth. Around that time, the pro­duc­ers of Boph­elo ke Sem­phekgo of­fered me a job. They had seen me on Shell Road to Fame. I needed to be on set in Polok­wane later that month. I told my fam­ily, and they agreed to take care of my baby. I re­turned home from shoot­ing and went back to school to com­plete my ma­tric. Af­ter ma­tric­u­lat­ing, with­out the prospects of pur­su­ing ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion due to lack of fi­nances, I went to watch a play called Tooth and Nail at the Mar­ket The­atre. Lead ac­tress Doreen Maz­ibuko, whom I met at uni­ver­sity, of­fered me the op­por­tu­nity to be­come her un­der­study. A few days later, she fell ill, and

I had to stand in for her. I went on a tour to Gra­ham­stown with the play.

My ca­reer was thriv­ing long

be­fore I joined the soapie

Back­stage. In 1991, I was cast in the film adap­ta­tion of Percy Mtwa’s play, Bopha. It was di­rected by Mor­gan Free­man and starred Danny Glover, Al­fre Woodard, Sello Maake Ka-Ncube and Eric Miyeni. Al­though this was my first movie, I could hold my own on set. I then went on to film Be­ing Hu­man along­side late ac­tor Robin Wil­liams,

The Lion and spent three years do­ing in­dus­trial the­atre. I also trav­elled around South­ern Africa ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about HIV/Aids. In 2000, I joined Back­stage, where I played the role of 49-year-old Ipe­leng. Be­cause I was only 30 years old at the time, the pro­duc­ers were reluc­tant to give me the role. Things changed 15 episodes later when I found a wig that made me look older. I also ad­vised the wardrobe depart­ment to dress Ipe­leng in two-piece out­fits, brown stock­ings and block heels to make her ap­pear older.

I left act­ing in or­der to cre­ate

sto­ries. Dur­ing my time on TV, I be­gan ques­tion­ing the way in which black women were be­ing por­trayed. When Ipe­leng ex­pe­ri­enced prob­lems, they wanted her to turn to al­co­hol in or­der to cope. This didn’t sit well with me be­cause it wasn’t my ex­pe­ri­ence of how black women dealt with their is­sues.

The women I knew turned to prayer or church in­stead. This prompted my de­ci­sion to stop act­ing and pur­sue a role be­hind the scenes, mainly ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ing. I wanted to be part of the so­lu­tion; to write and pro­duce sto­ries that I was fa­mil­iar with in­stead of per­pet­u­at­ing stereo­types. In 2009, I asked to shadow the pro­duc­ers and script-writ­ing teams on Scan­dal!. A year later, I be­came a trans­la­tor, and have since worked my way up to be­ing a script pro­ducer on the show.

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