Interview:  Thembi Mtshali-Jones talks about Mother to Mother – which premiered in Cape Town at the Baxter in September 2009. The play was adapted by Dr Sindiwe Magona from her book of the same name. Mother to Mother has been made into a documentary, also called Mother to Mother and is premiering at Encounters International SA Documentary Festival 2020. Direction of the documentary is by Sara CF de Gouveia.

This interview – the stage play- was first published in The Weekend Argus, August or September 2009.

In 1993, American Fulbright Scholar Amy Biehl was murdered in Gugulethu by a mob. Author Dr Sindiwe Magona discovered that one of the murderers was her neighbour’s son. Magona felt that her own son could have easily been caught up in the mob killing. In response, Magona wrote a fictional memoir, Mother to Mother, as a “heartfelt letter from one mother to another” to Amy Biehl’s mother, Linda. Actress/singer/TV star Thembi Mtshali-Jones approached the Baxter with the idea of adapting the play for the stage. The result is Mother to Mother – a one hander with Mtshali-Jones, which is premiering in the Golden Arrow Baxter on September 15. It will be on until October 10 and is directed by Janice Honeyman with set by Dicky Longhurst.

Mtshali-Jones was stunned when she read Magona’s book and the insights it provides. We know about the victim (Amy Biehl) and her story but what about the perpetrators? The notion of good versus evil hovers on a thin edge.   Mtshali Jones has seen members of her own family make choices which have not had brilliant outcomes. As a mother, she empathised with the pain of Linda Biehl and the mothers of the murderers.

In December 2007, Mtshali-Jones approached Baxter director, Mannie Manim and asked him if he thought there was a play in the book. He said he would read it over the summer holidays. “A few weeks later, he said that he loved it. ‘Okay, we will work on it. Then he called and said – we have a slot – who would you like to work with’ and I said – Janice (Honeyman)”.

The association between Mtshali-Jones and Honeyman goes way back. “I think I have done about five productions with Janis. Mannie was saying – ‘this is my last new production at the Baxter’. [Manim retires as Baxter director at the end of the year]. And I said I am glad – because I did my first play with you when you were running the Market Theatre in Johannesburg”.

Indeed, Mtshali-Jones has made her mark in theatre in a career spanning over four decades.  “I am turning 60 in November,” she murmurs in response to how much she has achieved. She doesn’t look it, I say. “I feel it. I feel it when I look at my grandchildren,” she murmurs.

Her career began by a stroke of sheer luck. She was born in 1949 and grew up in Ulundi, near Durban. Her schooling was interrupted when she was 18 and fell pregnant. She dropped out at school to support herself and her child. Her mother was a domestic worker and Mtshali-Jones followed in her mother’s footsteps – cleaning other peoples’ homes. Mtshali-Jones always loved singing at school. While, she worked at her chores, she sang. “My employers used to say – ‘oh Thembi you have such a beautiful voice’”. Her employers read about auditions for Welcome Msomi’s  UMabatha – a Zulu adaptation of Macbeth – at the University of Natal. They urged her to audition: “I did not know what the word audition meant. Welcome took me in. I got the part.”

That was 1971. The following year, the production went to London. On her return, Mtshali-Jones went back to her job as a maid. “My employers used to tell their friends when they came over – ‘you know our girl has been to London and we haven’t even been there!”

In 1973, when the production went back to London, she ditched the domestic work and went along for the 2nd tour. On her return to SA, she nabbed the lead role in the musical Ipi Tombi. She joined the original cast when it toured to Europe and to the USA. The tour began in 1976, prior to the outbreak of the Soweto Uprisings. The European leg went well. When the country went up in flames, the curtain came down On Broadway. “It was closed down by political organisations. It closed down early”.

Initially Mtshali Jones and her colleagues were disappointed and angry that the show had been shut down.  Johnny Makhathini–an ANC representative at the UN and artists in exile like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba opened their eyes politically and helped them to see the broader picture. “They helped us to understand why … It is not that we didn’t know what was going on; but they opened up our thinking. After that I wanted to do [perform] stories about myself and situations at home”. With help from Abdullah Ibrahim who was residing on NY, Mtshali Jones and colleagues from Ipi Tombi formed a group called the Freedom Singers. She worked with Masekela and then full time, touring with Makeba.

In 1983, Mtshali Jones came back home. “I stayed with my parents in Durban and toured with Sipho Gumede – one of the best bass players in the country. My recent CD, Bayabizana (“they are calling each other”) features his compositions. “In 1985, I went back to the theatre and then I went to the Market in 1986/7 which was when I did my first production with Janis”.

In addition to theatre, she started her TV career. “That was something that wasn’t there when I left in 76”. It pays the bills. “You do theatre to feed your soul and TV to feed your pocket”. TV credits include the series Stokvel and an Emmy nomination. She has done feature films and is also the co-owner of a production company Spirit Sisters which produces the weekly TV magazine series, The Power Within.

Mtshali-Jones stitched the stories of her life together in her one woman show A Woman in Waiting. It has been staged at the Grahamstown Festival [now The Makhanda National arts Festival], Artscape, Edinburgh, Bermuda and Toronto. One night, when she was on stage at Artscape, an Englishman saw her perform. After the show, over drinks at the Waterfront, they were introduced by mutual friends. They fell in love.  He had been planning to settle in Cape Town and he asked her to join him. She did. They got married and settled here.

That was nine years ago. A Woman in Waiting (written and directed by Yael Farber) has kept her busy with performances at international festivals and events. She has also been a key member of Truth in Translation – a play about the translators at the TRC – set to an evocative sore by Hugh Masekela. This powerful and moving work directed by New Yorker Michael Lessac was first staged in 2006 in Rwanda. It played in Cape Town, Edinburgh Festival, USA, Sweden and Ireland. It’s most recent tour was to the Balkans last year – including Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia.

Last year, Mtshali-Jones performed at the Baxter, in the epic play, Cissie. And now she will go solo in Mother to Mother. “It is a play which should resonate with all mothers – black, white, whatever. No matter how you raise them, you never know what your children will become. They seldom become what you want them to be,” she reflects. “But ultimately the story is one about hope and forgiveness”.

  • Image Credit: The Cape Robyn/Robyn Cohen. Photo of Thembi Mtshali-Jones, Baxter, 2009.