Makhaola Ndebele works across multiple genres of live performance and screen. The renowned creative is a theatre maker, writer, director, academic, arts administrator and star of TV and film. His solo theatre piece Cantos of a Life in Exile is being staged in Johannesburg, August 2-5, 2023, at the 28th annual Performance Studies International Conference,Uhambo Luyazilawula: Embodied Wandering Practices and in Cape Town at Theatre Arts from August 16-20, 2023. Cantos was first presented in 2015, at The Nunnery as part of his Masters degree in Dramatic Arts, at Wits University and then at two other venues but has not been presented since then.
Cantos of a Life in Exile is an immersion and engagement with “exile and home”. The personal and political of identity and liberation is key to Ndebele’s work, as is the power of theatre and performance practice, to “assist the exile to inspirit liberatory agency to regain a sense of belonging/home”. The son of academics, Ndebele was brought up, out of Africa. When he returned “home”, he felt an outsider, shut out. “I imagined South Africa to be the place I would find the belonging that I so longed for. But, upon my return, I quickly found that it was more an experience of moving to yet another new place rather than an experience of returning home.” Read on for more:
TCR: Is the first time that Cantos of a Life in Exile is being presented in Cape Town? From what I can gather, it was presented in 2015 at the Nunnery as part of your Masters at Wits? What was the topic of your Masters?
MN: The Title of my research paper was A Way Home: Performing Auto-Ethnography to inspirit Liberatory Agency and to transcend the Estrangement Effects of Exile. The study intended, firstly, to explore the effects of estrangement on a second-generation South African exile; and secondly, to explore how theatre and performance practice can assist the exile to inspirit liberatory agency to regain a sense of belonging/home.
TCR: Has Cantos of a Life in Exile been performed since 2015 and if so where and when? Has the piece shifted since 2015?
MN: After the performances at the Nunnery it was performed at the South African State Theatre Pretoria RSA June 2015 and So Solo Festival Johannesburg RSA September 2015. It will be performed at the 28th annual Performance Studies International Conference,Uhambo Luyazilawula: Embodied Wandering Practices in Johannesburg. August 2-5, 2023. The piece has not changed much since 2015, as it deals with specific parts of my life in relation to my research theme of exile and home.
TCR: Can you tell us “about” the medium – storytelling, poetry and drawing?
MN: Storytelling, praise poetry and song are rooted strongly in the South African cultural landscape. I work with these as tools to ground the work home ‘aesthetically.’
TCR: Is Cantos “auto-biographical” in? Is it your story or it aspects of your story – cleaved with the South African experience of exile”?
MN: It is aspects of my story dealing with the theme of exile and home. South Africans who were exiled during Apartheid found themselves wandering the world homeless… the work is about the effects of this and how one finds liberality agency out of that wandering.
TCR: What is your story – of life and exile- and how it is imaged in Cantos? Your father Njabulo Ndebele is a renowned academic. You were born in Lesotho and grew up there? Your academic parents worked in Cambridge, England and Denver Colorado so you had a fragmented childhood- in terms of geography and place. Did you always feel a sense of “exile” and the desire to return home?
MN: Yes, my father studied for his MA at Cambridge University; my mother was working at one of the campus libraries. In Denver, he studied for his PhD (creative writing) and she for her MA (social work). As a teen I found that although I was born in Lesotho and was, by birth right, a citizen, I was from another place (South Africa), of which I had little physical or embodied cultural reference. I would later travel to Europe and America, where I was discriminated against because of my race, and because I was a foreigner from Africa. I began to see myself as other, and to experience life as an outsider. I tried hard to assimilate into whichever culture I was living in, at any particular time. But, somehow, the assimilation was never quite complete; and I always remained an outsider.
I imagined South Africa to be the place I would find the belonging that I so longed for. But, upon my return, I quickly found that it was more an experience of moving to yet another new place rather than an experience of returning home.
TCR: Can you tell us about Performance Auto-ethnography? You are a research associate at the University of Johannesburg and you work with Performance Auto-ethnography to explore “how the self, as an archive, can inspire liberatory agency through theatre and performance.” Can you talk about Performance Auto-ethnography generally and in relation to Cantos?
MN: Performance auto-ethnography as a method to explore personal experiences and reflections within a broader cultural context. I think it’s a great method because it focuses the researcher on the self as a sight of excavation. The more South Africans are able to understand themselves within their broader cultural context, the better the country will become.
Through “Cantos” I’m able to understand the effects of exile on many other South Africans; some who may even be in positions of leadership. 30 000 to 60 000 people were exiled during apartheid. Beyond the understanding, I also explore how one may overcome the negative effects of exile.
TCR: What is your mother tongue and is Cantos in English?
MN: I speak Sesotho, English and isiZulu at home. Cantos is primarily in English, with bits of Sesotho and isiZulu.
TCR: Where is home for you? You currently live in Joburg. You studied drama at UCT. What do you consider your physical/emotional/political home?
MN: Home is the feeling of serenity for me. I’m at the stage in my life where I am at home wherever I am.
TCR: How does it feel to be on stage in Cape Town – after a long absence?
MN: It’s great to be on stage in Cape Town again the last time I performed in here was in 1998 when I performed a physical street theatre piece, Pump https://magnettheatre.co.za/productions/pump/ directed by Mark Fleishman and Jennie Reznek. Before that, in 1997, I did a Mark Banks Comedy Revue at Baxter Theatre with Mark Dymond and Anthea Thompson.
Cape Town is very much South Africa, and home to me. My parents and sisters live here. I hope to settle in Cape Town soon, I’m attracting opportunities that’ll enable me to move here. I mostly exist in the present; seldom in the past or future.
✳ Featured image of Makhaola Ndebele- supplied. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn https://thecaperobyn.co.za/theatre-news-makhaola-ndebeles-cantos-of-a-life-in-exile-yearning-for-a-place-to-call-home-cape-town-august-2023/