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‘I’d say try, and keep trying’ | Q&A with award-winning playwright Sibongakonke Mama

A meditation on ‘dis-ease, disease and alienation’ is how Sibongakonke Mama has described her award-winning script, Ibuhlungu le ndawo. The Johannesburg-based journalist and writer was recently announced as the overall winner of the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition.

Having studied Journalism and, later, Creative Writing at Rhodes University in Makhanda, Mama will return to the Eastern Cape next year for the 2023 National Arts Festival, where her script will take the form of a full-length theatre work, debuting at the Festival.

We spoke with the award-winning playwright about some of the themes that animate her script, the role of mentorship in one’s writing process, and the potential of theatre to pose essential questions about contemporary life.

Hi Sibongakonke. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us and congratulations on your recent win! Your winning script, Ibuhlungu le ndawo, deals with themes such as grief, memory and family history. Have these topics always found a home in your writing?

Thank you for the congratulations. I’m truly astounded, really, I can’t believe it. Yes, Ibuhlungu le ndawo deals with grief, memory, family history, dis-ease, disease, among other things. These are topics that have always found home in my writing, or my writing has always found home in them. They are things that surround me as themes that exist in this life, but also in the people around and in me. I think it doesn’t take a genius, especially in this country, to see that all of us are surrounded by these themes. We all become part of each other in various ways.

Speaking on the process of writing this script, you mentioned that you’ve enjoyed learning how storytelling takes place in the context of the theatre. How do you think a story adapts or translates from the page to the stage?

Being a first-time playwright and, soon, maker I’m still going to learn more about the various answers to this question. For now, though, I can say that while, on the page, the creation and experience of a world is conceptual or metaphysical, the stage allows this immediately physical and differently-visceral human witness, interaction and sharing. There’s something about the literal presence of bodies and voice. That’s the big reason this work wanted a home in a stage play and not in, say, a book. So, when writing the piece, it feels/felt that I am stretched more as to the (at times) very physical tangibility of the world of the play, its energy, emotions and so on. We – the makers and the audience – all live here, this same place in which we’ve come to gather, now.

What has the mentorship process been like for you so far?

The mentoring process was tricky at first, I was too hypervigilant about my writing convictions because I was scared of them getting in the way of my learning as a first-time playwright. So in the beginning I was second-guessing my thinking and feelings a lot. But when I trusted and used my voice, I was able to get the kind of mentorship that really spoke to me and the story, and both our needs. That changed everything for me in terms of my approach by allowing me to find various questions to ask of myself, the story, the characters, the environment and search for answers. I’ve enjoyed being challenged and opened up, and I’m looking forward to more of it.

The play will also debut at the 2023 in National Arts Festival in Makhanda which is where you studied towards your degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing. Looking back, is there a link between these things – the MA, Makhanda, the National Arts Festival – and your script?

Sibongakonke Mama 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition winner

Where my degrees, Makhanda, the National Arts Festival and writing are concerned, yes, there is a link and some poeticism there about getting to stage a play at the festival next year. Besides the books I read, the first time someone taught me meaningfully about writing was Gillian Rennie during my third year of journalism at Rhodes in Makhanda. It was also in Makhanda – during the Rhodes drama department’s showcases and during the National Arts Festival – where I first watched theatre pieces that moved me and made love me this thing (the theatre) as a place for expression and story. It was the experience of studying towards my MA, also through Rhodes, that made me believe that I’m a good enough writer; and it was the kind of material I was exposed to during that year – mostly by Stacy Hardy – that made me believe that I could try my hand at playwrighting. As to the link between my script and Makhanda; I’d be more interested and curious to hear how abantu baseRhini will answer this question after they hopefully see the work. They’ve felt and known that city better than I ever will.

Lastly, what do you think is the potential of theatre in the contemporary world, and what advice to you have for aspirant playwrights?

I think the theatre – in its simultaneously communal and individual nature, as well as the many ways it can bend and the forms it can take – is and still can be a (more) tender space to ask questions of ourselves, each other, our environment, even worlds not here that affect us nonetheless, that in our daily lives we’re often robbed of the vulnerability of asking. (That’s an embarrassingly long sentence for a writer!) Of course, this is not to simplistically purport that the arts, or anything, is a great silver bullet or answerer – but questions are a good start.

I don’t have any playwright advice. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. But I do have a little advice about trying. So I’d say try, and keep trying. If you think you’re doing it ‘wrong’, do it ‘wrong’ until it feels right. This might mean finding your way to what’s ‘right’, or it might mean your ‘wrong’ way being right. If no one hears you, do it alone or lonely – you’ll find abakhaphi bakho. If it’s difficult or painful, do it crying. All this stuff is what I did, just try. And express your needs to people who care about you, or people who you think might have the ability and capacity to care about you in ways you know and don’t know you need. 

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