BWW Interview: Five on Friday with THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE's Nondumiso Lwazi Msimanga
Although she is a successful writer, theatre-maker, academic and lecturer, Nondumiso Lwazi Msimanga's work as a gender activist is arguably the defining feature of her work. Focusing on the themes of freedom, justice, race, and gender, she completed her undergraduate degree at (the institution currently known as) Rhodes University, then completing Honours and Masters degrees at Wits University. She graduated with distinctions in all three courses and her the South African Theatre Journal published her thesis. As a theatre-maker and performer, she has participated in numerous festivals including Dance Umbrella and the National Arts Festival, where her production of BARBED WIRE WALLPAPER won a Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award in 2015. She is the co-creator of the national rape and sexual assault awareness campaign, SA's Dirty Laundry. With a keen interest in creative research, she lectures at Wits University and is an ICA Writing Fellow for 2017. Her current project, THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE, forms part of a season of reinvestigated Greek classics that represents the third year of a collaboration between the Market Theatre Laboratory and the POPArt Performing Arts Centre. The production opened last night.
David Fick: You are currently directing Timberlake Wertenbaker's play, THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE, which is a feminist retelling of the rape of Philomele by her brother-in-law Tereus. How does this British play based on a Greek legend connect with contemporary South Africa?
Nondumiso Lwazi Msimanga: The story of rape is unfortunately far too familiar in the South African landscape. News headlines of the taxi rapes, amongst other stories of sexual assaults, have been the underscore of our lives every day this month. April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month here, so doing this story is pertinent to our current story in many ways. Why I chose to focus on a myth, an adaptation, that we have also adapted, is precisely because myths speak to the shadows of our lives. Myth makes us think of the story as one that connects us to our own subconscious and then links us to all time. Rape is, unfortunately, mythical - its beginnings cannot be traced, and it is a horrible part of our shadow psyche. What is significant about Timberlake Wertenbaker's writing is that it doesn't just present myth, but it asks, 'Why?'
DF: What has it been like working with the Market Theatre Laboratory in preparation for this production?
NLM: The Market Laboratory is a remarkable space. The kind of camaraderie of every single member of staff that is then also built into the student body makes working with an ensemble cast a sheer joy. The students in this cast have come from different places, and they have put these experiences together into the shared experience of living in this country, in a time where the spirit of revolution is ripe. Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, Pereko Makgothi, Rudy Motseatsea, Tumeka Matintela, Mathews Rantsoma and Boikobo Masibi have each contributed to the translation of the text into a South African vernacular; and brought a unique perspective to what the myth of the rape of Philomele signifies about humanity and its lack of change, in this aspect.
DF: You've been an active force in tertiary theatre education, which always places one in a unique intersection of research, writing, theatre-making and mentorship. What has been the highlight of your career so far?
NLM: Creating work with students is always the highlight of my work. When we create, we manifest all the intersecting issues of our world in a way that not only mirrors our society but also challenges it. As a lecturer at the Wits School of Arts, it is inspiring to see the multiple innovations that students there are creating in order to address the problems that they face with decolonising the institution. The many dimensions of my work mean that I have the opportunity to think and act in a variety of ways. It is my hope that in interacting with the world in its variance, that I can make some lasting mark that will ripple far beyond any one thing that I can point to and say, 'There is my trophy'.
DF: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing South African theatre at present?
NLM: It would be easy to say financial support - this is a pervasive issue. But, at the heart of the changes that are being fought for in the country is also the need of all peoples to be recognised on equal standing. There is the need for the theatre space to decolonise itself and invest in the languages and performance modes of the continent even more. It has become increasingly urgent for South African theatre to define itself by developing its unique ways of making theatre for its own art industry as well so that the West does not end up celebrating more of our innovative work than we do.
DF: In South Africa at this time, we have a huge mix of theatre legends and inspiring new artists right now. Who is your South African theatre hero?
NLM: Thembi Mtshali-Jones and Momo Matsunyane are inspirations for me. Thembi Mtshali-Jones is most popularly known for playing Thoko in ISGIDO SNAYSI, but I have had the pleasure of seeing her work on stage and speaking to her, and find her dedication to the craft just inspiring. Momo Matsunyane is a peer whose drive and commitment to her art is nothing short of amazing. They also happen to be wonderfully humble humans.
THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE runs until 16 April, with nightly performances tonight and tomorrow at 20:00. The final performance, on Sunday afternoon at 15:30, will be a "Red My Lips" performance. Patrons are asked to please wear red lipstick to show support for raising awareness against sexual assault. Follow this special event on social media using the hashtags #RedMyLips2017 and #LoveOfTheNightingale. Tickets are available from the POPArt Theatre website, costing R80 if booked and prepaid online or R100 if paid on collection at the bar. The POPArt Theatre is situated at 286 Fox Street in the Maboneng Precinct of Johannesburg and can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.