Sunday Times

MAMA’S GIRL

Laugh­ter is in Tumi’s genes

- By TUMI MO­RAKE BDSM · Rotaract · University of the Witwatersrand · Bloemfontein · Bloemfontein Celtic F.C. · Phat Joe · Brakpan

Ev­ery time I ex­celled at some­thing, Mama would say: “My baby, you are a trier.” It was her way of say­ing that she was im­pressed, that I was mak­ing waves. I liked that she called it “try­ing”, be­cause every­thing I ven­tured into was a trial. I have never been cock­sure; I have just told my­self that if I can learn some­thing, I can master it.

Mama and I shared many laughs. She was naughty, and she al­ways made peo­ple laugh. My fa­ther also has a fan­tas­tic sense of hu­mour, and no short­age of dry jokes. Their com­bined genes cre­ated this comedic beast that is Tumi Mo­rake.

When I first branched into stand-up com­edy, it wasn’t be­cause of some call­ing I thought I may have; it was be­cause I had fi­nally hap­pened onto some­thing I could ap­proach with the con­fi­dence of a cock­roach.

The first time I ever did stand-up was for a fi­na­lyear stu­dent who had writ­ten a script for three co­me­di­ans or comic ac­tors. I can tell jokes, I reck­oned, so why not? At the au­di­tion, there was a queue of boys and only two girls. I was not fazed. I grabbed a script, stepped out­side, prepped. I laughed so hard at the script be­fore I even mem­o­rised it that I must have looked like I was suck­ing up. I could see other ac­tors try­ing to fig­ure the gags out.

I re­mem­bered the words of my grade 4 teacher,

Mrs Walker, who told me that I had an in­nate un­der­stand­ing of hu­mour. I got the jokes that went over most of the class’s heads. At this au­di­tion, I al­ready felt like I had an edge on ev­ery­one else.

When my turn came, I stood in front of this beau­ti­ful, tiny Greek girl with long dark hair and a friendly face. I re­mem­ber the re­lief I felt when she laughed be­fore I had even be­gun go­ing through her gags. I was cast with two other guys, and I never looked back.

The first gag I ever wrote was about a prison hunger strike that had made head­lines at the time. I said it was only fair that the hunger strik­ers save us some tax money, since we feed them any­way, and it could even solve the is­sue of over­crowd­ing in pris­ons by killing in­mates off. The hunger strike came across more like a self-cor­rect­ing mech­a­nism than a prob­lem.

An­other early gag was about the acous­tics in pub­lic toi­lets that made it dif­fi­cult for any­one to do a num­ber 2. I would make the sound of the poop drop­ping into the wa­ter, the echo of that em­bar­rass­ing broad­cast, and the ex­tra-hard, un­nec­es­sar­ily loud cough­ing fit you use to try to mask the sound. Then sit­ting in your cu­bi­cle un­til you were sure that the re­stroom was empty, be­cause you did not want who­ever had heard you to see who had made the noise. It was a crappy gag, but I sold it and got that first big laugh that spurred me on to write more.

Born un­der a funny star sign

I grew steadily from there. The first time I per­formed in a com­edy fes­ti­val was in 2004, a char­ity gig for Ro­taract in the Down­stairs Theatre of Wits Univer­sity. This was to be the in­au­gu­ral Best Medicine Com­edy Show, ben­e­fit­ing lo­cal or­phan­ages. [My hus­band] Mpho was as­sem­bling a huge com­edy line-up at a time when com­edy fests were a rare thing. He talked me into do­ing five min­utes, be­cause he was con­vinced I was hi­lar­i­ous. I was con­vinced that the guy was just so in love with me that he ac­tu­ally thought I could stand among gi­ants.

An un­fa­mil­iar ner­vous­ness came over me, but it was also ex­cit­ing in a way I had never ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore. Mpho’s line-up in­cluded his sis­ter Nana Yaa and some es­tab­lished co­me­di­ans my brave young man had de­cided to call to get this thing done. He had worked with them on The Phat Joe Show and was pos­i­tive they would be down.

This was how I learnt the sim­ple strat­egy of “the worst thing they can do is say no”. Mpho called them up one by one: Ri­aad Moosa, Joey Ras­dien, Kag­iso Lediga, Tshepo Mo­gale and Dale Abra­hams. All of them agreed to ap­pear. David Kau played hard­ball and ini­tially re­fused, but on the night he showed up and said he’d jump on. It was in­sane! I tried to chicken out, but my man was hav­ing none of it. A cou­ple of other stu­dents were also go­ing to jump on for five min­utes. We were ex­cited. Scep­ti­cal, but ex­cited. Kag­iso came up to me back­stage and asked me what my star sign was. I told him Sagi­corn, and he said, “You’re gonna die.” I wanted to punch him in the throat. Then I re­alised he was go­ing around to all the new­timers and ask­ing them that ques­tion. We all had a laugh, although I faked mine be­cause I was too mor­ti­fied to find any­thing funny.

I clutched my lit­tle piece of pa­per with my planned set. I wasn’t go­ing to make the five-minute mark, but I would be happy with three. My voice lec­turer at the time, Pam Power (pro­lific writer, frig­gin’ amaz­ing, funny as hell), came to watch and told me af­ter­wards that this was a ca­reer path I should def­i­nitely con­sider. She was im­pressed. This was a sharp­shooter who did not give com­pli­ments willy-nilly, so I held on to her words like she had just given me a dis­tinc­tion in per­for­mance.

It would take me an­other three years to jump on­stage at a com­edy club, but stand-up stayed on my mind dur­ing the post-Wits hus­tle, and even­tu­ally be­came an ob­ses­sion. I saw it as a plat­form for fear­less speech. That qual­ity, or prom­ise, drew me to the art. The ab­sence of sa­cred cows in the ma­te­rial promised me a cer­tain level of sat­is­fac­tion that I would not get from any­thing else I was in­volved in as a per­former or a writer.

My other work im­posed lim­i­ta­tions set by cen­sor­ship, or I would find my­self di­lut­ing my thoughts by ex­press­ing them through fic­tional char­ac­ters. What I wanted was to join the sa­cred home of the marginalis­ed, where I could speak freely, against the sys­tem, against the sta­tus quo, with­out fear of ret­ri­bu­tion. The way African-Amer­i­can co­me­di­ans talked back to the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy and power.

Smoke, beer and testos­terone

I got in touch with Judy-Jake Tsie, an­other tal­ented fe­male co­me­dian, to ask her how I could get five min­utes on a com­edy stage. She had the con­tacts; I needed the con­nec­tion. The first one was a gig for Joe Parker in a casino com­plex called Car­ni­val City. Car­ni­val City is on the East Rand, in Brak­pan. From the out­side it looked like a gi­ant, dome-shaped fun park with blue, red and yel­low lights. Walk­ing in, I found a gi­ant casino that felt worlds apart from re­al­ity. The only other place where I’d heard that much Afrikaans be­ing spo­ken was in Bloem­fontein. I felt right at home.

We walked across the wind­ing walk­ways and came to the lily-white Su­per­sport Bar, where waft­ing cig­a­rette smoke hung in the air, min­gling with the smell of fer­mented saaz hops. This was a very male space. In­vis­i­ble testos­terone flexed its mus­cle here. And be­cause it was the end of the month, the room was packed to ca­pac­ity. My nerves be­gan kick­ing in.

We came in through the front, fac­ing the stage. The show pre­ced­ing ours was still on: a “tits-and-ass show”, as the comics called it. Heav­ily made-up girls in skimpy cos­tumes and su­per-high heels; these were the only fe­male per­form­ers we en­coun­tered in that space. Won­der­ful. We went to wait in the back be­cause the dress­ing rooms were oc­cu­pied by ei­ther dancers or dancers’ things. I didn’t mind; I couldn’t sit still any­way. The au­di­ence was mainly drunk, mainly white, mainly male. The women who were there were ei­ther ac­com­pa­ny­ing those men or were prob­a­bly on a gam­bling break. And af­ter the tits-and-ass show, I dare say those men were a tad randy and in the mood for ac­tion rather than com­edy. The last thing they wanted now, I imag­ined, was some chancers try­ing to make them laugh.

How­ever, Judy-Jake con­vinced me that it would be great; I had a strong five min­utes, and that was all I needed to sell my­self to this room. An open spot is an un­paid spot, but this was my chance to prove I was good enough to be a paid act.

One of the comics told me that this was a tough crowd, but I would do all right if I just got up there, did my time and left. Well.

Madam & Eve, sort of

When I got on stage, the au­di­ence con­tin­ued to speak among them­selves. A cou­ple of co­me­di­ans had al­ready been bod­ied, so I was pre­pared to die. Some peo­ple in the au­di­ence seemed thrown; I may have been the first black fe­male co­me­dian they had ever seen. I de­cided to ad­dress the ele­phant in the room by say­ing that I was wear­ing too many clothes com­pared to the last show and that I prob­a­bly looked out of place. I as­sured them that my madam had given me the night off to come and do com­edy (be­cause, let’s face it, they were way more fa­mil­iar with black women as do­mes­tic work­ers than as witty stand-up co­me­di­ans). They chuck­led, and I no­ticed that the room had gone quiet. I thought I was dy­ing, but when the first big laugh hit and was fol­lowed by silence, I re­alised these guys were with me. They were buy­ing into my story and wait­ing for me to keep go­ing. I owned my space.

Mama and I shared many laughs. She was naughty, and she al­ways made peo­ple laugh. My fa­ther also has a fan­tas­tic sense of hu­mour, and no short­age of dry jokes. Their com­bined genes cre­ated this comedic beast that is Tumi Mo­rake

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 ?? Pic­ture: Alaister Rus­sell ?? OWN THE SPACE Tumi Mo­rake get­ting into the mood for a stand-up com­edy gig at Em­per­ors Palace in Kemp­ton Park last year.
Pic­ture: Alaister Rus­sell OWN THE SPACE Tumi Mo­rake get­ting into the mood for a stand-up com­edy gig at Em­per­ors Palace in Kemp­ton Park last year.
 ??  ?? A young Tumi Mo­rake and her mom.
A young Tumi Mo­rake and her mom.

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