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Slindile Mthembu Is Challenging One-dimensional Narratives Depicting Black Women

Slindile Mthembu is a playwright and director of theatre based in Johannesburg. She is also co-founder of Mabu Art Foundation, an organisation dedicated to telling authentic stories; whilst also completing her MA research on Black women playwrights in post-colonial South Africa. Her work reflects the intersectionality of Black womxn's lived experiences and seeks to disrupt one-dimensional narratives. Her latest offering Igama? will be screened at The Bioscope on the 27th of November.

Your MA is focused on Black women playwrights in post-colonial South Africa, to pull their voices into the centre of the margin, what insights have you drawn from the research and how has it impacted your work?

Firstly, the journey to discovering Black womxn voices has been both a challenging and an excruciating process, but a beautiful experience none-the-less that will be all worth it in the end. This journey has helped me re-discover myself, understand the importance and the need for black womxn to be heard. The gap is a scary ghost that needs to be filled. So, shout out to all black womxn creatives you continue to inspire me. To be honest, I was ashamed of myself for not doing my part to speak about the black women’s lived experiences, In doing so, the lived experiences of women living in South Africa are central to my research topic. This interrogation led me to question my identity as a black woman living in post-colonial South Africa. As well as to reflect on my experiences with sexism, racism, white supremacist influences, language implications, and class discrimination. It was within the context of being a black South African woman did I begin to question if I have written to expose and explore the point where gender, race, and class discrimination meet.

What norms do you wish to highlight and disrupt in the theatre industry that currently hinder women theatre makers from telling their stories?

I wish to highlight and disrupt or rather continue to collapse habitual, chronological and often one-dimensional narratives depicting black women and their lives as a form of resistance to say, “asijiki, we are forging forward and out voices will be heard, named and seen in hegemonic spaces that have rejected us.”

Intersectionality is a core intention of your work. How do you ensure that the work you create is accessible to socio-economically, less privileged groups (where many instances of GBV reportedly occur)?

This has been something that I have been trying to figure out/strategize around for a very long time and to be honest if brands can be open-minded to partnering with theatre-makers by commissioning writers/playwrights to reformat narratives such as Igama into short advertisement ads, billboards, newspapers, radios etc. that can be seen in and around communities as a message to help create awareness on issues pertaining to GBV. We need to also go back to the old fashioned way of performing in community halls. This can assist in getting the message to the people quicker and faster by creating meaningful campaigns in around less privileged groups. This is where I believe the future of theatre-making can go and we just need that one brand that one shot to be able to show you how impactful and influential theatre is.

You address some heavy themes such as gender-based violence, racial, sexual and socio-economic discrimination in your work, thus reflecting the times. Beyond giving a voice to the voiceless, in what ways is the creation process cathartic for you?

The creative process has been cathartic in a sense that it was formed from my personal experiences with being a black woman playwright, director, theatre-maker who exists in the margins of a historically dominating male industry. A black woman who wanted to interrogate a traumatic memory that needed to be investigated through the writing and directing of a new contemporary South African theatre play ‘Igama?’ As well as a black woman who does not want to be regarded as the other, but to be named and to be further discovered by the theatrical canon. So I would like to re-introduce myself by saying: Igama lami ngu Slindile Mthembu. I am Black. I am a woman. I am a playwright, and a director of theatre. In that order, I repeat: I am black, a woman, a playwright and a director of theatre. In those intersections of gender, race, class and artistic profession, I will not turn back!

What is your process when creating works like ‘Igama?’ and ‘Remembering’? Where do you draw inspiration from to recreate the jarring realities that women live with in South Africa?

I have found it remarkable that the body has been the safest space to start. I release the tension and weight of history that is carried in the body through movement and text as a form of discovery and finding ways of how to retrieve a memory or an experience that the black female body has hidden. This is something that we have been learning and exploring with the performers of igama? and it has been an honour to work with the likes of; Simtandile Sityebi, Molatelo Maffa, Sbongakonke Magubane, Samukelisiwe Maseko, Ayanda Seoka and many black women theatre-makers and performers who have played a vital and beautiful role in the process of the development and shaping of igama? Being able to observe and study you all in the space for two years has been incredible and I thank you because I was required to go step into a performative body for works such as Re-membering and I remember thinking in that process that I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it wasn’t for you all. Ngiyanibonga for helping me develop the courage to also face my fears. You all are incredible artists. Thank you for saving my life and for saying yes to this process.

In 'Re-membering' you reenact a scene depicting gender-based violence. In what ways do you feel that our artistic expressions of these grim realities impact social justice and achieve the intended changes?

I really cannot begin to explain how many womxn have come to me in the form of sending messages of gratitude for how that specific performative scene has helped free them from a past experience that they struggled to interrogate. The transition from stage to screen has given us artists a moment to be able to impact society and to spark change. So through that considered 3 minutes exploration /collaboration between myself, Thembinkosi Mavimbela, Cow Mash, and the centre for The Less Good Idea proves that when we come together with pure intensions as artists there is so much we can achieve as a community and collective.

As a black woman self-starter, what have been some of the most profound lessons on your journey so far?

I would like to say to the 23-year-old Slindile that started this journey for us that: It’s okay to accept why visions with other people didn’t align with what Mabu Art Foundation was trying to do at that time. As a co-founder with Nhlane it came with a lot of responsibility, loss (financially) and emotionally but the people who stayed and who continue to believe in Mabu Art Foundation are all that matter. Forgive yourself for not being able to control your tongue, forgive yourself for the people you hurt along the way, and mostly to always remember why you made the biggest decision to take a risk by not waiting in a line. Always remind yourself that it’s a process, breathe and that this type of journey takes a very long time and that we will eventually get closer to the door and when we get to that door you better kick it down with your team.

The theatre industry has been deeply impacted by the pandemic, and thus you have started adapting your work for digital consumption. How has that impacted your perspective on theatre and its current and future possibilities?

All I can say to this is FINALLY South African theatre is moving and adapting into a digital/virtual space. It is about time that South African artists are being given the opportunity to reach a wider audience and for their impeccable works to be seen and valued from afar and near. For example, I was able to reach a wider audience through the digitalized medium that I wouldn’t have been able to do inside a boxed theatre setting. It was honestly becoming challenging each year to instil a culture of theatre-goers in this country. We needed that pause to re-think and re-invent the wheel for the future development of theatre in South Africa and to bring bums back on seats.

You are screening 'Igama?' at the Bioscope’s new venue at 44 Stanley at the end of this month. Tell us how that came about and give us more information about the screening.

This screening came about when I got tired of negotiating with theatre spaces. As a theatre-maker and creative producer, I needed to find another solution where I could avoid subsidized theatre spaces who continuously create unnecessary high walls. So I decided to use the medium of film in hopes to bring audiences back into the theatre. The play was filmed for the first virtual National Arts Festival under the curated programme and the product is owned by me which means it can be plugged and played until we have created more awareness, developed better cost-effective structures that can enable this work to be valued, pay artists what they deserve and be appreciated more in a live theatre setting. The special screening of Igama? will take place on Friday 27 November at 7 pm. You can get a ticket for R100 which you can purchase via their website.


Photography: Boipelo Khunou

Interview: Phendu Kuta


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