Art Talk with Thoko Ntshinga
March 11, 2014
"If I were to win loads and loads of money, I would plant theaters, proper theaters, in each and every township in South Africa." -- Thoko Ntshinga
For South African actress Thoko Ntshinga, her art and her community are inseparable. Having grown up under Apartheid, Ntshinga sees it as her calling to give voice to the voiceless and to use theater as a vehicle to help communities examine and resolve their issues. Ntshinga--who holds a Masters degree in theater for development--has been a working actress for more than 35 years, appearing on stage, in film, and on television. She has received awards for her acting work, as well as for her community development work, including the 2000 City Press/Rapport Prestige Award for being "one of South Africa's most inspirational women." We spoke with Ntshinga when she was appearing at Washington, DC's Shakespeare Theatre, playing "Christine" in Mies Julie, Yael Farber's provocative adaptation of August Strindberg's classic Miss Julie.
NEA: What was your journey to becoming a theater artist?
THOKO NTSHINGA: It's been quite a long journey because I come from the backdrop of black artists not being able to perform formally, or getting a chance to be on a stage, perform on stage, stuff like that. We didn't have theatres that accepted black people.
NEA: During Apartheid?
NTSHINGA: Yes, yes. I'm from that time…. There used to be a lot of plays coming from Johannesburg because, in Johannesburg, things were easier than where we were in the Western Cape…. There used to be shows by the [playwright] Gibson Kente who wrote shows, plays, music, [and] trained actors, and those shows would come through the whole of South Africa. And, you know, you would envy watching people on stage and hoping one day you would also be on stage. But it was when I saw… advertising that they needed actors at the Space Theatre--the Space Theatre was the first theater that was integrated in South Africa, the first theater that accepted blacks or whites,there was no separation, nothing--I went and auditioned. I got a tiny little part, but I was so excited. I took it and I never looked back.
NEA: What made you want to go into acting?
NTSHINGA: I think the background at home made me want to go into acting: my mother being a singer, and one of my uncles played drums. My other uncle played guitar. So, there was always singing and music at home. And, in my mind, theater was not just playing on stage, it was being in a musical show. So, when I went into theater [for the first time], and this was a straight, historical play, it was kind of different. But, for me, it was a platform.
NEA: How would you describe both the arts scene and theater scene in South Africa today in general?
NTSHINGA: It's buzzing. There's loads of art work happening in South Africa. Whether the stage, or visual, or whatever, there's a lot happening. There's a lot of community theater happening as well because we have these huge communities, especially black communities, that don't quite reach the stage of the formal theaters. But, we make our own theaters out in the townships. What Gibson Kente called "township theater" and other people call community theater. There's lots and lots of that…. And there are theaters opening everywhere now. You know? I love the fact that there are always these names and genres that have developed within South Africa. So, you do theater everywhere. You would be in a queue, and two people just spring up and do something. You don't know that these two artists were waiting for the queue… so that they could perform, send a message. There's a lot of industrial theater as well where companies use the stage to be able to talk to their employees. There's a lot of that. So, artists get work, in a sense, as well. Which, like I said at the beginning, is an effective tool. It's an effective way of talking to people when they perform. You take an issue and make a character out of the issue. Then, people identify.
NEA: You work as both an artist and also as an arts administrator. How do those two roles inform each other?
NTSHINGA: Not so easy. I come from a background of artists being poor, and I have vowed that I will not put up a production if artists are not going to be paid. I will look for funding. I will look for money so that artists--especially the young artists--know that you can actually live in this career. You can be able to make money and not stay poor. So, it's been hard in the sense that I would have to be working myself and running an organization.
NGOs back home run in a way that it's not money-based, it's skills-based. So the organization that we started [Nants’ingqayi Arts Development] was an organization where we helped kids get to understand the theater. Young people in South Africa see other young people on television: they make money, they're musicians. But, do they really know the nitty gritty? Do they know the hard work that has to be put in in order to get big? My belief is that many of those young people fall into drugs because they get too famous, too quickly, too easily. Then, when money is exposed to them, they take drugs. When their energy gets too high, they fall flat. So, I felt it was a duty. I needed to be able to say to the number of kids that I reach that it is a career. You need to study. You need to understand it. You need to get into it knowing what you're getting yourself into. So, we were targeting high school kids and training them. It was more like an after-school care program. We were targeting the child between when the child comes back from school and when the parent comes back from work. What does the child do during that time? That's when they start getting naughty. So, that was the time that we felt that we're going to bridge those gaps.
I'm an artist, one of the founding members [is]a nurse and passionate about HIV and AIDS, and one of the other members was an educationist. And the other member was a marketer. So, we felt we've got the skills [to fill] a calabash. So, what we were saying is you take this calabash, you put your need in the calabash, and we, as the company, will put our hand in there, fish out whatever, and try to make it happen. So, that's what we've been doing.
NEA: Can you talk about how you use the arts for community development and to address community issues?
NTSHINGA: I also have a background in theater for development. I studied theater for development in Winchester. Because I felt...plays like Born In the RSA--that came to Washington, came to Boston, came to New York, was in Edinburgh, came to London--it was the kind of play that alerted the whole world about the struggles of people of South Africa. And, being on the stage, you are a voice for the voiceless.... If you are on stage and use theater as a tool to talk to people, you reach them better. People don't want to be lectured. People don't want to be screamed at. People don't want to feel sad. But, you need to entertain as well as giving out the message. So, we kind of felt like in a community, people want to laugh. People want to laugh at themselves. But, who is going to start the joke? So, we, the artists, are the ones to start the joke going so that people find themselves within the joke and go home, think about it, and think, "That was me on that stage. I either need to change or go do something about it."
So, I think that's how we got into dealing with the community like that: as art…. People go to meetings and they don't understand. We toi toi a lot in South Africa. We call it toi toi, you know, when we jump about and send a message and whatever in anger. Most of the time it's in anger. And yet, I feel that if you take that energy, put it on those streets in South Africa… if you take the thing or topic that they're angry about, create a play about it, and make people watch, sit, and see themselves, [they] understand a bit about how better to give the message to the government. I feel that when we did Born in the Republic of South Africa, the play, when we did that, I feel we reached so, so many people. I feel that we spoke to our government, because it was seven people from different backgrounds talking about each and everyone's own life within South Africa.
So, again, as I'm speaking now, there's a play that's happening at home. We got funding from the lottery in South Africa to do the play, thank God, because we've had this topic. Children and young people who go to what you guys call the prom… before or after they write their [Grade 12 exams]…. And then what happens at home is after the dance, they go off to a party. They create the party. Parents don't know anything that's happening in that party. Five, eight years ago a girl child was never, ever seen again. Kids get raped. Kids get drugged. I picked up this one person who tried to follow up about what actually happened to this girl child. To this day, nobody knows. That child was never, ever seen. So, it was now our duty to say to parents, "Are you aware of what is happening?" This thing is very expensive. They get dressed. Parents spend a lot of money to make their kids look good. But in the end, kids aren't excited about how they dress or the speeches the principal is making. They're excited about the party afterwards. And it's a party parents have got nothing to do with. Schools have got nothing to do with it. So I came up with this concept of trying to get these young people to talk to us about what actually happens at the after-parties. The play is in demand as we speak because now it's like, "Oh! Oh my word! I did not know this!" At the end of the show we have a question-and-answer session. I was touched by one young man who said, "The previous year I was at one of those parties; I didn't realize how much of the danger I was in during that time."
Now we've got this play. It's raw, and it's like, "Here. This is what we do, and this is how we do it." You know, just to highlight or create more awareness about what people get involved in or how our young people get involved in it. So, I love working within the community and communities. I love to give the skills that I've learned through all of these years. It was never easy for me; I studied long after I was in theater. I am a self-created actor. But, along the way I realized you actually need to understand there's a lot more than just being on the stage. There's a lot involved that one does when one is an artist.
NEA: What is an important lesson you’ve learned from your work as an actor that you’d like to share with young artists?
NTSHINGA: A lesson learned thus far is that every play is a lesson. Every time you walk on to the stage, or you get into rehearsal, you're picking up things that you didn't pick up in the last production. And, every production you perform is an audition for a possible job. You know? Because, you don't know who sits in your audience. You don't know if the people sitting in the audience are looking for an actor for a certain play. So, you get involved in such a way. You want to embrace all aspects of what you do. Theater, in a way, is not about walking on to the stage. If you take the example of “Christine” [the mother character in Mies Julie], there is a bit of me in Christine. There's a bit--not me Thoko--but a bit of an older, black woman in Christine that I understand. Part of my life, I have grown up in the rural areas, and I can understand where that comes from. And, for me to be able to play Christine effectively, I had to tap into that whole life. I had to be able to say to people, "This is not just Christine." But, to get people to feel Christine, to be on the same platform with Christine. So that, when Christine breaks down at the end, that journey--the audience must come with me so that they understand she is not just breaking down, but it's been a hard, hard road for her.
NEA: What would you like to see happen in the theater scene, say 10 years from now? 20 years from now? What's on your wish list?
NTSHINGA: My wish list is to have a proper theater in each and every township within South Africa. A proper theater. Because at the moment we're performing in halls, in school halls. We don't get the excitement of the lights, the sound…. That magic thing that happens when you put all of those things together on stage we can't have because we do not have all of the resources. So, for me, if I were to win loads and loads of money, I would plant theaters, proper theaters in each and every township in South Africa.