Bianca Flanders is the latest addition to The Fugard Theatre’s smash-hit production of David Kramer’s District Six- Kanala. Recently joining the show in its third incarnation, Bianca has managed to make the role her own. She has also starred in Blood Brothers, Orpheus in Africa and Niqabi Ninja which ran last year during The Cape Town Fringe Festival. Bianca kindly sat down to chat with us after a performance of District Six- Kanala.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
To be absolutely honest it was probably being the biggest fan of Whitney Houston during her Bodyguard era. Ever since I was four years old I would do concerts at home. When my parents got home from work I would force them to watch me sing and dance and reenact scenes from The Bold and the Beautiful and then give them signs of ‘clap’ and ‘don’t clap.’ It was probably a mixture of being Whitney Houston and just playing when I was a kid. I’ve just always known.
That’s so interesting because you sort of do have a Whitney Houston moment in the show…
…With that belt! You are unreal. And you’ve only recently joined the cast?
Yes. This is the third run of Kanala. This is my second week of performing the show. I came on towards the end.
Have you ever replaced in a musical before?
Yes, for Blood Brothers I was brought on as the understudy for Bianca Le Grange but I never actually had to go on as Bianca. I was just meant to learn the part but somehow it just worked out that I went on as another one of the characters instead of going on for her.
What is the process like of jumping into a show that has had two previous runs and is in the middle of performances?
It comes with its own set of challenges. Obviously I have had the incredible and talented Bianca Le Grange who did the role first and then there was Natasha (Hess) who is also incredible and the most beautiful dancer. They both have their own interpretation of the role so you kind of have to make sure that what you bring is fresh and that I am not copying any of them. That is a challenge. I think it’s a blessing and a curse that the show is quite set already so it makes it easier for me to learn things because everybody else has been doing it for so much longer but at the same time you are just in a different space to everyone else. I am still playing and trying to find it whereas everybody else already knows what they are doing. It’s been very challenging but the cast has been exceptionally warm and friendly and really helpful. They are always helping me with choreography and stuff backstage and just very willing. That has made my time here a lot easier.
What I found quite interesting when I was researching for this is that this is your third Kramer musical.
Why the choice to keep coming back and working through his material?
I’d have to ask Mr. Kramer that. I think with Blood Brothers, I wasn’t in the original cast, I came on again later. To be honest, I feel like from the outside he is really good at giving people a foot in the door. I feel like he is good at recognising something special or something that he thinks is special in somebody. I feel like he is really good at picking that out and just wanting to give you a helping hand. It felt to me like that was what Blood Brothers was. I had finished graduating and I hadn’t really been working for a year and a half. Then I auditioned for Blood Brothers and I didn’t get in and then a couple of months down the line he was like “you should come in and just give it a bash and we’d like you to understudy for Bianca.” I was very grateful to him actually just for opening the door for me because I think the industry can be quite tight-knit at times. Then Orpheus (in Africa) was quite exciting because it was completely new so it is always beautiful to work on something that nobody has done before it means you get to put your own stamp on it from the beginning. This is also just a completely different challenge for me. All of the kinds of work that I have done with him have been very different. As an actor they each bring their own challenges because it is not the same. Blood Brothers, Orpheus and Kanala are all completely different shows. As a director he is very kind and patient and generous. He relies a lot of the actor which is very nice because it means you get to learn a lot and explore. He gives you a lot of space as a performer which is very generous because it gives you the space to play. I would work with him again and again just for that reason.
I loved that this show is just filled with so much joy. It does have a darker undertone at times and I think one of the biggest takeaways is that it reminds you to pay attention and remember your history and where you’ve been.
Absolutely. I went to the District Six Museum, before I even knew that I was going to do the show, a couple of months ago. I feel like what happens a lot is that we can become quite desensitized to this kind of thing because we just hear about it a lot, forced removals and apartheid and then we just become desensitized to it. I went to the museum and I really realised, I mean I will never fully understand because I wasn’t there but, how horrible that was. To have one of your basic human rights removed from you. You are forcibly removed from the place that you live in. And also it sounded like the most incredible place. What I think the show does quite successfully is I feel like it has that really nice balance of, “Yes this was so much fun, it was incredible, all these different types of people lived here,” but then at the same time it really shows that darker side of what happened. Just when you start to get comfortable they pull the rug out from underneath your feet and say, “This is actually what happened.” It is a celebration as well as a mourning of what happened in the ’60s. I love that he balanced the aftermath of what happened so it’s not just like, “There was District Six and then the show ends.” He shows where people went to. People lost their homes and that is a product. I like that he doesn’t just end the show, he brings it back to the now, to this little girl because there are probably lots of little girls whose grandmother’s… my grandmother had family in District Six and I loved when she told me about it. There are probably lots of little girls whose grandmothers speak to them about it. I think that he did that really well.
The show keeps coming back and has now extended once again. Why do you think that it’s doing so well and that people keep returning to it?
I think it is doing well because the music is really good. I think people enjoy good music and I feel that the music is exceptional and it is also seriously old school which even if people deny it, everybody likes that. I think it makes people nostalgic because it speaks of a time that is not around anymore. It speaks of a time where people spoke to their neighbours and they asked next door for a cup of sugar and kids played in the street, people went to the star biscope on the weekend, and it was safe and the worst thing that the gangsters did was maybe sell some weed and smack somebody around. I feel like people are nostalgic and they just don’t know and the show speaks to that sense of nostalgia I think that you didn’t even know you were missing until you watch it. For me every night I think, “I wish I could have seen what District 6 was like. Even for just a weekend if I could go sleep over there in 1960 just to see what it was like.” I feel that the show speaks to that. I think the energy is also quite addictive. It’s quite a high energy show and the audience can’t help getting caught up in that.
I am very excited to talk to you because I don’t know if you know this but I saw Niqabi Ninja…
Did you really?
I did! And I sat down with Megan (Furniss) and Loren (Loubser) so you have been on my list for a very long time. I have been very vocal about my support and love for that show. I wanted to ask you about your experience workshopping the piece.
Niqabi Ninja for me was such a special project because I think it speaks about subject matter that we just don’t talk about. It is something that girls have to deal with since the age of 9 or 10 or whenever you start puberty but nobody talks about it. We are just silently acclimatizing to having to deal with sexual harassment on a daily basis. And it’s not just about being grabbed or anything, it’s about things that people say to you or what they think are compliments that are really not. It’s just something that as a woman you just had to deal with for the longest time and nobody talks about it. I always think that it takes up so much space in your head. Niqabi Ninja was a great opportunity to explore that and to talk about the things that people aren’t talking about. Obviously I couldn’t have asked for two better women to do it with than Megan and Loren who are just two powerhouses. It was a very open and easy process. Loren is just so giving as an actress. It was so lovely to work with her and Megan is the same. She is a great director to work with. That project means a lot to me because I have a little sister as well and I think it’s important that us women own our voices and talk about the things that are not ok because if we don’t then we are just perpetuating the cycle. “Why do I have to think about what I am wearing when I literally just want to go to the Spar. I just want to buy a bottle of water. Why are you saying something? Why is it necessary?” I think a lot of men don’t know, or they say they don’t know, the extent to what women have to deal with. I don’t think they realise. So I think it was quite good in that sense as well because it was an eye-opener.
I was saying to Megan that what struck me most about the piece is that there were lines that the characters said that have come out of my mouth or feelings that they had that I’ve felt and yet we don’t talk to each other as women about these experiences.
I’m very lucky because I am part of a group called The Feminist Book Club. I am lucky in that way because I have a platform where I can voice these frustrations. It’s about 10 highly intelligent women who are very opinionated but it is a safe space to talk about these things. I also come from a family of very strong, opinionated women so I guess speaking up has never been a problem but I feel for many women that they are not that blessed. They don’t have that safe space to voice their frustration or concerns. We really hoped that the piece would at least start something like that.
I think it’s important for women in general to see themselves accurately represented on stage.
I think this piece does it justice. To end off, because I don’t know how you are still standing after that performance, I wanted to ask you, who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I find Amy Jephta incredibly inspiring and strong and I don’t know when she sleeps, to be honest, because she just quietly rules the world. I love what she is doing and I love that she is giving coloured women specifically a voice and not a stereotypical voice which is something I feel quite strongly about. I am probably just naming all of my friends but they really do inspire me. Jill Levenberg, as an actress… she is such an inspiration and she has taught me a lot. She has been very generous with her knowledge and her time. In the industry like this it makes a big difference to have somebody older and more experienced open their heart and their mouth and give their words to you. It has really made a difference to how I approach what I do because I think it can be quite cutthroat at times. She taught me a lot about how to deal with that and how to be. Then Koleka Putuma who is also another young and incredible poet. She posted something on Facebook the other day and she compared her mouth to a machete. She just has a way with words that is just next level. I love that she is so young and so brave and she is saying a lot of things in the most eloquent way possible that people didn’t even know that they were thinking and she just has a way of saying it. Those are the people at the moment that are really inspiring to me.