Tankiso Mamabolo is a recent graduate of UCT who has burst onto the scene. Before graduating she performed in Black Dog/injemnyama which had a successful run at the Baxter Theatre. Tankiso also co-created and starred in the critically acclaimed production of The Fall which went on to win an Encore Award at this year’s Fleur du Cap Awards and will be returning to the Baxter later this year. Following that, Tankiso will reprise her role in Ameera Conrad’s Reparation at the National Arts Festival followed by starring in the highly anticipated new South African musical Calling Me Home.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I remember I was watching Sister Act and I thought, “Wow, I can actually do this.” I come from a very musical family, all they do is sing. [I think] just being surrounded by people who have these dreams of being performers but never could because of circumstances and having a mom who kind of pushed me. I was doing badly in school because I wasn’t interested in anything and my mom was like, “Maybe we should try something else.” She took me to an arts school, Lady Grey Arts Academy, when I was in Grade 10. I went there for music specifically but I discovered theatre and thought, “This is actually pretty great.” Then everything just kind of followed from then on. It just became natural.
I read about you winning the DALRO/ACT/Nedbank scholarship, which I think is incredible because I don’t think many people know about that.
It’s strangely not talked about a lot which I don’t think is beneficial to anyone because it does a lot for a lot of people.
How did you find out about it?
In the Eastern Cape, when I was in high school, university wasn’t a thing you spoke about much. It was just a thing that certain people went to do. When I was in matric, I was a very hard worker so my drama teacher always looked out for me. He was sort of my mentor. He told me about the scholarship and the competition was in Joburg. He took a whole bunch of us. I didn’t know anything about it. I am very competitive so when I got there and saw that it was super official, I had been to Eisteddfods and these high school competitions so I thought it was that kind of vibe as well, then I started to really work at it. I made the top 6 and I was shocked. Then they sent us material and I started liaising with them and then they introduced the idea of university to me. I had been thinking about it but not really hectically. It was something that I sort of expected my mom to bring up. Then they gave me an option of universities that I could apply to with the scholarship and I didn’t know anything about university so they advised me on UCT, Rhodes or TUT. I had never been to Cape Town so I was like, “I want to go to Cape Town.” I wouldn’t say it was luck but I think I was at the right place at the right time with the right people who saw my potential before I could see it.
In this past year you’ve done a lot of theatre but I feel as though a lot of people don’t know that you are really inclined towards musical theatre and are about to go into a musical. Has it been a conscious thing to do theatre first? How are you choosing the work that you do?
At first I just really wanted to do musical theatre. Then when I got into my second year of drama school I started falling in love with acting more and more without the musical side. My main dream is to be a recording artist. Music has always come naturally to me but with acting, I had to get training for it. I decided to study theatre because I thought, “I can sing but I can’t perform.” When I looked at the course after they had suggested it to me and it said “Theatre and Performance,” I thought that it would strengthen me in all areas of performance and while I can sing, I still need to learn things like stage presence, I still need to learn professionalism. It is a skill I’d like to gain as well. Being at UCT is really great because you get a lot of outside people coming to watch and they see your skills. I’ve been lucky that a lot of people have seen me perform. I’ve been involved in the student movement which meant [that] I then created The Fall with my friends and people saw me and then wanted to work with me. I haven’t really had a chance to sit down and really just pick. It has all just come to me and it has all just been really great but I am excited to start musical theatre. It is going to be interesting to be in a different kind of discipline. I want to do a lot. I also want to venture into a whole lot of other things and I think that this is great but I want to be a recording artist in the end. That is what I think I want to be remembered for more than anything else.
What was the process like creating The Fall?
We were all involved in the student movement but in different aspects. The year of the student movement we did Black Dog/injemnyama which was about the 1976 uprising. We did it at drama school and I think Lara Foot came to watch and she was very interested in the company and she wanted it to come to the Baxter. She was interested in this idea of a young company creating their own work. She approached Clare [Stopford] who had directed us in Black Dog and had lectured us so we were comfortable talking to her. We came here for a month in March and we all sat together and we created a timeline of when we had started getting involved. Everyone was involved in different aspects so everyone would add their own little story. I view everything very creatively. I am not good with details but I am very good at looking at the human element. Everyone added a different element. We sat for a month and it was a very painful process. We had to relive a lot of what we went through. It was also very therapeutic. We got to grow a lot. We got to reflect and we presented it to the Baxter but not as a performance piece, we just read them what we had written and Lara was happy with it and she was like, “Cool, now we need to work on performance dates.” The dates came and we put it together with the help of Clare. It was the best process I have ever been [a part of] considering all the people I worked with were my friends. We were in the movement together. The Baxter was great. They provided counseling because sometimes it got a bit much especially because during the formation of the play you would hear stun grenades happening on campus and we were right here. We were going through a lot of thoughts. You sometimes feel like you are abandoning your people when you are here creating a play and they are still out there. It was a great process, it came with its downs but it was beautiful.
Did any of you anticipate the success that you received?
No, we expected backlash. We expected that people would either say we were making money from struggles or we aren’t telling the story correctly. We even made the first few shows free for UCT students because we needed them to just see it and I remember seeing full houses and I was shocked backstage every night. We’d have Q&A sessions afterwards and people were crying and telling their own stories about how they had felt. 50-year-olds who had been at UCT were using it as an opportunity to let out their own pain. We were very pleasantly surprised but we didn’t expect it at all. We were very scared going into it.
Now that The Fall is returning in June, what are you most looking forward to while revisiting this piece?
The reactions. I think the last time we did it was in the middle of the action. People were still being detained. The students were still being expelled but right now things have quieted down a little bit over here. I know in other places it is still ongoing. I am interested in seeing if people change their stances on certain things. We might change a few things, we don’t know yet because the thing with history, especially if it is such a recent history, [is that] things change, new details come into light. You see new angles every single time. I am very interested to see how people react to it this time.
What can you tell us about Calling Me Home?
At the moment I am not at liberty to say anything about the show but I can tell you that the team creating it is just amazing. I was scared going into it because I am leaving Cape Town for a bit. When your career starts rolling, you don’t want to leave right in the middle of the fire but the music is amazing. The cast is amazing. They are really patient. They really value our input and I really appreciate that when working with people. I appreciate people who treat me like I am a part of the process as opposed to a hired dancer or something. I think it is going to be an amazing musical. I think it is something that this country hasn’t seen yet. I am very interested in the diversity of it as well and how that is going to read on stage and what conversations it’s going to raise but I am very excited.
When I look at the work that is being created, most of which you have been a part of, I feel like there seems to be a dawning of a new golden age of theatre which hasn’t occured since the 70s/80s.
I realize that it is happening everywhere not only in the performing arts. It is happening in media, in all aspects of the country and politics. These are very interesting times. I feel like art is reacting to that and it is about time. I feel like we’ve been entertaining for very long. After a while entertaining just stops being entertaining. There is a rebirth of new radical voices in theatre, exciting women playwrights. I don’t know if you saw Reparation?
New work that pushes the boundaries, that speaks of now, that excites people. I think it is a great thing that is happening.
What are your hopes for the rest of your career?
I want to inspire a lot of young black people. I can say art saved me and that would be an understatement. It didn’t save me from drugs or a life of crime or anything but I was genuinely not interested in contributing to the country until I discovered that I could actually have a voice here. I think a lot of people are sitting at home with that same dilemma of not knowing how they can make an impact. I want to show people that it is actually very possible and I want to make ways because I can’t pretend that it is easy for everyone. I appreciate all the help I’ve gotten but I can’t pretend that other people have had the opportunities that I have had. I want to create opportunities for other people and I want to inspire. I want to create a culture in South African theatre. The only other person who I know [who] has done this properly, there are a few others, but I know him because I’ve worked with him, is John Kani. He has existed since his beginning and he is still a huge figure in South African theatre. I want to push that culture of artists that are recognised and given the recognition they deserve because they make an impact. A lot of the time we are just the side show. I want us to be mainstream. I want us to have a say in the decision-making processes. I believe that artists are more equipped than anyone else because I believe we have the ability to see beyond what is just fed to us. We study humans, we study life. I want to push a culture of young people who push boundaries, who believe in themselves, who exist. I realise that existing in your fullness and accepting yourself and not compromising in itself, is a protest because everyone else is just sort of expected to swallow themselves and accommodate everyone else, but I’m always like, “I will exist and I will be full in my existence.” That is going to be my form of protest. It means that I will not compromise. I will not be apologetic about my opinions. I will not allow myself to be put down by other people. I will push what I believe in. I think young black people need to learn how to exist because we’ve been shut down for so long.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Pamela Nomvete is one. I am inspired by young people though. I used to watch people on TV growing up and they inspired me more because they were black and they were on TV and I was like, “Wow how did you do that?” My friend Ameera Conrad is amazing. She is a force to be reckoned with. Nwabisa Plaatjie, she was a Magnet intern and she is currently working at Artscape directing a play. Whoopi Goldberg is my idol. A lot of the people I encountered at university when I needed confidence. University can just kind of break you. Lesoko Seabe was just one great influence in just the way she chose to carry herself despite some of the struggles she encountered being a black lecturer at UCT. She taught me to push. She taught me to be confident because I was not confident at university. Mostly it is the young people around me. Thando Mangcu is one. Now I am listing my friends but they are the people who are always around me who are always pushing me to do better and they are very honest. There have been a lot of people along the way that I have gone, “I see you, I recognise you, and I am going to take that from you.”
You can follow Tankiso on Twitter.