Thembi Mtshali-Jones: Theatre Road – My Story as told to Sindiwe Magona: Review

Published November 2019, Karavan Press, South Africa

Dovetailing with her 70th birthday, Thembi Mtshali-Jones has published a memoir of her journey in theatre in South Africa. It is an extraordinary story of triumph, transcendence and inspiration.

I first met Mtshali-Jones in 2007 when she performed in Truth in Translation, a play written by American, Michael Lessac which foregrounds the role of translators in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Subsequent interviews followed. I was speechless when she first told me how she embarked on her theatre journey. She was a single mother, working as a domestic worker in Durban, when her employer’s daughter encouraged her to audition for Welcome Msomi’s  UMabatha – a Zulu adaptation of Macbeth. Mtshali-Jones had excelled during her school years, singing in the choir. She sang while she did her domestic work chores. When she was told about the auditions, Mtshali-Jones did not know what “the word audition meant.” She prepared for the audition and got the part. That was 1971. A year later, she went off on an international tour which led to a career, far away from the legislated racism in South Africa.

It was a meteoric trajectory from single motherhood to international stardom and her induction into the international community of South African artists in exile which included luminaries like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

The audition story evoked absolute wonder and absolute horror for me. Yes, it is a great story in that it marked her entry into the theatre world. She is immensely grateful that she got the opportunity; that someone cared and believed in her and assisted her in the audition prep and process. Still, I cringed at the image of this talented individual being subjugated in this environment; “the girlie” at the mercy of her white bosses in Apartheid South Africa. Every time we met, I urged her to relate the story again. With each telling I wanted more details. The audition story is described in Theatre Road and contextualised against the milieu in which Mtshali-Jones found herself in the early 70s as a young Black woman, without much scope for artistic and personal fulfilment.

Born in 1949, she had everything stacked against her within the Apartheid landscape. After school, she was accepted to nursing college, but had to leave, at the age of 18, when she fell pregnant. The father of her child absented himself. As a single parent, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and took on work as a domestic worker. When the door into the theatre road opened, she stepped through – with a sense of awe, delight, relish – trepidation and grief. The road that she took, entailed leaving her young child at home in South Africa so that she could build her career abroad.

She almost didn’t get to go abroad. As a Black unmarried woman, in order to apply for a passport, her fathers’ signature was required. That was what the Apartheid government demanded. Her father refused to give his permission.  He had been basically absent from her life. The racism of the times was coupled, with the wide-ranging culture of acquiescence of women towards men in Zulu society. Her mother swooped in and forged her father’s signature which enabled Mtshali-Jones to get her passport. She was able to travel.

A big surprise for me in reading Theatre Road is that it operates along two converging points. There is the Thembi Mtshali-Jones story – how she made her way from domestic worker to international star on her personal theatre road. And there is the story of the theatre road of Black artists in South Africa and how they have been – and in many instances continue to be –side-lined in terms of recognition (creative and intellectual property) and remuneration. When everything was going well, Mtshali-Jones embraced cultural activism. She walked away from being part of the musical, Ipi Tombi, On Broadway in New York. It opened in December 1976. As she writes: “This was 1976! South Africa in the spotlight, a very negative spotlight.” The show was boycotted and closed after three weeks.

Mtshali-Jones had the opportunity to join touring companies in SA or to become part of the show on London’s West End. She made the decision to stay in New York – and disconnect from a beautiful show which brazenly appropriated the intellectual property and creativity of artists. Producer, Bertha Egnos and her daughter Gail who worked with her, did not credit the input of the artists in creating the show.

This is a shameful part of South African theatre history that has tended to be shunted out of the way. And there is the perennially positive up- beat Thembi Mtshali-Jones laying it out loud and clear in this book. Her narrative reveals fascinating insights into our recent history. For instance, she writes that representatives of the South African Embassy attended the opening performance of Ipi Tombi in New York. The message was that the Apartheid government endorsed the show which was obviously creepy and disturbing for Mtshali-Jones and her colleagues. They had been presented as poster black artists, paraded in front of the American press, coerced into punting the merits of the show. It was a lovely show – albeit – a white produced show, appropriating black talent. In the book, she muses: “I felt uncomfortable all the times that we were being interviewed by other Black people, who were looking at us as if saying, What fools are you? The show is beautiful but you should be owning it. It is not a white show, it is your show.”

Mtshali-Jones stayed in New York; juggled jobs, created work with other artists. She toured with the likes of Makeba and Masekela. In 1984, she made the decision that she had enough. No matter how hard it was in South Africa, she wanted to go home. And she did. A big career ensued on stage and film. It is all in this book.

Absence and presence resonate powerfully in reading in Theatre Road and will stay in my mind – long after learning about the details of Mtshali-Jones’ life. From an early age, she dealt with the absence of her mom who was a domestic worker. She was not absent by choice but circumstance of Apartheid which forced her to be separated from her child in order to earn a living. Until she was 13, Mtshali-Jones saw her mom only about once a year. She stayed with her grandparents. Although her mother was not physically there, she was very much a loving presence and this is conveyed deeply by Mtshali-Jones in this book. Her father was generally absent. He was keen to get back into her life when she was famous. His absence was felt but it didn’t define her life and she didn’t shroud herself in anger and resentment. The father of her child was absent – most of the time – until she became famous and he wanted in. She declined his desire to be present again in her life.

When Mtshali-Jones embarked on her artistic and political exile, she was forced to also to absent herself physically from her daughter’s life but she was very much emotionally present and involved in her daughter’s life. Her pain, grief and longing is palpable in the book.

Back in her home country, in addition to work on TV and film and working on peoples’ projects, Mtshali-Jones has created a formidable body of devised work, collaborating with creatives such as Sindiwe Magona, Yaël Farber, Janice Honeyman and Victor Ntoni.

In an interview in 2016, with me regarding the play, OoMaSiSulu (a collaboration with Sindiwe Magona), I asked what drew them to Albertina Sisulu. Mtshali-Jones reflected: “For me, with Mama Albertina Sisulu, we wanted to tell a story that any young girl today can identify with, because when one reads about historic icons, we just read about them as heroes and not about their journey and trials and tribulations which they had to face in order to become those heroes.”

In Theatre Road, beyond the icon; the multiple award winning living legend of Thembi Mtshali Jones, we go along with her on her theatre road and “experience” how she steered her incredible journey. Throughout her road –with its bumps and de-tours- she remains dignified and regal (a nod to her Zulu Royal lineage). She is a humanist and exhibits respect for others- even for those that don’t deserve it.

Theatre Road has been beautifully published by Karavan Press, with colour photos. Bravo to Sindiwe Magona who has worked with Mtshali-Jones to shape the narrative into an accessible and engrossing memoir.

Book purchasing advisory: Thembi Mtshali-Jones: Theatre Road – My Story as told to Sindiwe Magona

Publisher: Karavan Press

Publication date: November 15, 2019

Recommended retail price: R280

Purchase: major book stores; online at Loot forR267 Loot link: Prices correct as of December 2019.

Pages: 272 pages (16 pages of photographs)

Format: Paperback, 230x150mm

Genre: Biography

ISBN: 978-0-6399942-3-9