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Thembi Mtshali-Jones: ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Theatre

Multiple award-winning actress, singer and playwright, Thembi Mtshali-Jones adds the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) Lifetime Achievement Award for Theatre, sponsored by DALRO (Dramatic Artistic and Literary Rights Organisation) to her extensive list of accolades.

She moves with the care of a mountain that is aware it is shifting the landscape of an entire world when she is on stage. Thembi Mtshali-Jones has been in the industry since Welcome Msomi’s epic Zulu Shakespearean tragedy Umabatha and toured the world as one of South Africa’s best actresses; and now she is being recognised with an ACT Lifetime Achievement Award. She says, ‘Every other award I have won or have been nominated for was usually for one particular production but a Lifetime Achievement Award means a lot more.’

Theatre patron Pulane Kingston said that she decided that she would be involved in the art form after being mesmerised by Umabatha. She recalled watching it when she was younger: ‘I remember walking away and undertaking to one day play a part, no matter how small, in promoting African performing arts as I understood the power.’ The power of performance for Mtshali-Jones casts the actress in the role of a priestess – providing a guide to a person’s life ‘that is exactly what the person needs at that particular time in relation to what they’re going through in life.’

‘One time I was performing A Woman in Waiting, based on my life-story, at the National Theatre in Ottawa, Canada. While I was on stage I could see this little young lady crying and her boyfriend trying to comfort her. She insisted on seeing me after the show. She told me she was crying because she could relate to my story and had not spoken to her mother in a long time because of anger, but now she was going to call her mother first thing when she gets home and apologise.’

Mtshali-Jones’ own story was also transformed by the stage. She was a domestic worker when a woman from the family that she was working for heard her sing and said that all she needed was to be seen. But while this was a significant moment in initiating an actual career in the arts the performer in her was groomed from a young age. Her grandmother and great grandmother told stories and Mtshali-Jones’ formidable career has grown to international acclaim because she tells stories. She has written as well as performed in her own plays.

As a young girl, she recalls, she was given the gift of sharing stories with her ancestors. ‘When I was a little girl growing up in the village in Zululand near Ulundi, where I was brought up by my grandparents, I was lucky that both my grandmother and my great grandmother were great storytellers. That helped me to be a good listener, which is a skill that has helped me throughout my career. My grandmother encouraged me to tell her the stories she had told me, but using my own imagination, different actions, voices and songs. Through that I learnt how to interpret stories in my own way,’ she says.

As a television actress she became known by the name of her character in the sitcom Sgudi Snayis’: Sis’ Thoko. She says, ‘It gives me such a wonderful feeling to know that I have been involved in such great work that has had a long life to be enjoyed by many generations as well as a long term effect on those who have seen the work I’ve been involved in.’

“Every other award I have won or have been nominated for was usually for one particular production but a Lifetime Achievement Award means a lot more”

She remembers screaming when asked to sing at Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday, as though it were an electric shock during a difficult time: ‘Between 1996 and 1999 I was going through a major shift in my life, my career wasn’t moving forward. That was a point in my life where I knew I needed to find a new direction to reinvent myself and take control. I then decided to leave SA and ended up living in Washington, DC for three years, working with different theatre groups. It was during this time when Tata Mandela was turning 80 and the South African Embassy as well as the NAACP hosted a big birthday bash at Howard University in DC, which was when I was asked to sing him a happy birthday which was covered by CNN live.’

Now, she is crowned with the honour of an ACT Lifetime Achievement Award at the ACT Awards, hosted by Sun International. Her advice to those who look up to her as she thanks ACT and the country for its support and recognition of her work through the years is humbling. She says, ‘And when you fall, because you will fall, accept it and move on.’ She keeps moving forward.

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