Mncedisi Shabangu on telling the story of Tshepang with honesty and integrity

Written and directed by Lara Foot, the multi-award-winning production Tshepang: The Third Testament comes to The Fringe at Joburg Theatre in October. It stars the original cast, Mncedisi Shabangu and Nonceba Constance Didi, in a haunting and uplifting story.
     Shabangu received the 2003 Fleur du Cap Best Actor Award for his performance as Simon. Creative Feel chatted to him about his career, his role in Tshepang and working with writer and director Lara Foot.

Mncedisi Shabangu Tshepang Joburg Theatre
Mncedisi Shabangu Photo Oscar O’Ryan

Creative Feel: You have performed in quite a few of Lara Foot’s plays, why do you think that you work so well together? What is it about her writing/directing style that appeals to you?
Mncedisi Shabangu: I was in Paris when Lara was appointed associate artistic director of The Market Theatre and I got a call from her. She was in Johannesburg at the time; she asked me if I would like to join her workshop team to adapt and devise Ways of Dying, based on the novel by Zakes Mda, and I agreed. We started working on the project and that was when I realised that she didn’t know I was an actor. She thought I was a theatremaker because my play had won The Zwakala Festival and got a season at The Market Theatre. She was charmed, I must say, by my play. It was only later during rehearsals when I stepped on stage that she began to realise that I was, in fact, an actor.
     I guess Lara knows how much respect I have for her writing, we can be open and honest with each other. The beauty of it all is that I’m comfortable in being me and she trusts me with her work. I give all of me, all the time, without holding back. As a director, she gives me all of her as well and that includes her family. She is serious and I’m the funny guy and that is probably why we complement each other so well. I understand her and I want to shine with her. I mean, come on, who doesn’t want to work with Lara Foot in this country? The work is important, but it is also important to derive fun without losing the pure meaning of the story. Above all, we both strive for honesty and integrity.

Mncedisi Shabangu Tshepang Joburg Theatre
Mncedisi Shabangu Photo Oscar O’Ryan

CF: You have performed the role of Simon in Tshepang so many times over the last 15 years. Do you always approach it in exactly the same way or have there been small adjustments/changes over the years?
MS: The character of Simon was never based on any specific character, but on one that I created for myself in the play. In 2003 when we started, we read so many articles around the subject of infant and child rape. So those articles served as a springboard and a base to develop an understanding of the situation, which provoked all sorts of emotions in me. The approach for me really, in terms of characterisation, was to find an emotional balance so that the story could be told. That’s how the character of Simon developed his journey. In a nutshell, the idea of acting in Tshepang never crossed my mind. I am Simon. I have to be the character to make him believable and, therefore, tell the story successfully.

CF: It must be quite hard to play a role like this, how do you prepare for it? And how do you emotionally/mentally prepare yourself?
MS: Indeed. It is very hard to play any role in Tshepang. It’s hard for my co-actor [Nonceba Constance Didi] too. It’s also hard for Lara to direct. And it’s hard for the audience. It is also hard for Siesie and her community of Louisvaleweg. It should be hard for all of us. But hard as it is, I’m willing to sacrifice my own happiness and go to the dark places of the story. I have learnt over the years to prepare better by not even bothering to think too much because, whatever I do, the story will hit me hard. I guess the exit after telling the story is more important than how you prepare for the play. A debriefing process is what helps us heal. At the end of the play we are all wounded and that’s the first step to healing. CF

Tshepang: The Third Testament is at The Fringe, Joburg Theatre, from 16 to 28 Oct at 20:00, 15:00 and 11:00. Book on 0861 670 670 or via joburgtheatre.com. School groups can also book via Happiness Mnyandu on 011 877 6853, or happiness@joburgtheatre.com.