Theatre has not always been accessible to the masses, especially black people.
We’ve seen #OpenUpTheIndustry calling out casting directors and programme managers in film, TV and radio but what about theatre? With audiences becoming more diverse and black experiences making their way onto the stage, we can’t help but wonder how you land lead roles in big productions, such as King Kong.
Currently showing at the Jo’burg Theatre, the musical production follows the life of boxer Ezekiel ‘King Kong’ Dlamini. The 1959 version of the production helped launch the careers of musical greats Miriam Makheba and Hugh Masekela.
We had a chat with Athenkosi Mfamela, Shalom Zamisa, Sibusiso Mxosana, and Aphiwe Menziwa about acting in King Kong and finding opportunities as black people in the theatre industry.
For the interview, we are at the foyer of the Mandela theatre, the four actor had just finished rehearsal for the day. Expectedly, the four actors are lively and fill up the room with their loud laughter and boyish smiles.
You can see why they got the role to play the high-school students for the production. We jump straight into the interview as I ask them about their exposure to theatre.
“No one around me went to see theatre. Well, it was too expensive for one but it was also very far out of reach,” says Sibusiso who plays the role of Takkie.
With the medium being exclusive, how does a black person find his way onto a stage? Athenkosi says he found his way through community theatre.
“When I was a boy, I didn’t know about theatre really. I played “sketch” (playing house) with my friends where I could be anyone I wanted to be. I liked playing an adult,” he laughs. Athenkosi grew up in Cape Town, the actor would later be introduced to the performing arts by the community theatre, and through studying at the Magnet Theatre company in Cape Town.
The young men all agree that the performing arts industry has opened up considerably from the time that they were children. “The faces you see now aren’t the faces you saw years ago. The faces you see behind the scenes, the faces you see on stage and those you see in the foyer – these faces have diversified,” says Shalom.
The actors believe the industry cannot be fully opened, however, until theatre becomes available to the masses. Shalom calls for a rebranding of the industry from stuffy and conservative to young and vibrant.
” [King Kong] is a story that has a place in today’s society. The themes of intimate partner violence in the play speak to the current crisis that we are facing as a country.” The play also features an all-black cast which is uncommon for big-budget theatre productions.
Aphiwe urges the government to take a more active role in bringing theatre to disadvantaged communities. He feels that this will help change the face of the industry. “Theatre is not foreign. It’s a part of our culture. We just need to change how it’s presented to the masses,” he says.
Getting on the stage is the first big battle for a theatre performer. Shalom tells the group that he would volunteer for any position in the theatre while studying. “I would jump for the usher jobs. I would run after actors and directors after working on shows asking them to mentor me.”
He tells actors breaking into the industry that they should not stop being eager. “Auditioning is hard but that should not take your hunger away.”
Making it as a theatre actor is not just about auditioning and talent, marketing yourself and growing a fanbase also plays a part.
“It is not easy transitioning from the background to the lead … you need to brand yourself,” says Athenkosi. “Directors look for a brand when casting. They looking for someone to sell the show.”
You can catch Athenkosi, Sibusiso, Shalom and Aphiwe on stage at the Joburg Theatre in King Kong. The production will be showing until Sunday, 8 October 2017.