When The Fugard Theatre announced their plans to bring King Kong back to the South African stage, the pressure was on for them to find a woman bold enough to step into the iconic role of Joyce. After a two year search which spanned the world, Nondumiso Tembe was finally cast in the highly coveted role. Born in South Africa and raised in New York City, Nondumiso Tembe is the real deal. An accomplished stage and screen actress as well as a singer-songwriter and dancer, she has managed to excel in every medium that she has stepped into while remaining incredibly grounded and focused on her career. For a full biography, please click here.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I honestly cannot say that there was one particular person. There are so many different artists and genres and performances that have inspired me and influenced me from a very young age as a young performer. I started performing at six years old. I’ve been doing this literally my whole life. Both of my parents are very successful opera singers and I started at around six years old performing in opera and theatre with them. The arts have always been a part of my life and they are in my blood. This is my God-given calling. I am just walking out my purpose and my calling in life. I had a strong sense of direction in my life and I really just knew at a very young age what it was that I was interested in pursuing and I did. That is why I was able to accomplish some of the things that I accomplished from a very young age because I was always very focused and had a strong sense of direction and consciousness and alignment in my purpose. It’s not that there was one event or one person or artist, it’s more about me having been awakened at a very young age to my purpose and to my talents and also having two extraordinarily supportive parents who just really believed in me and raised me to believe that I could conquer the world and I could do anything if I worked hard and put my mind to it and was disciplined and applied myself. That self-confidence that they gave me and believing in me gave me wings to fly and then I did the rest because I was passionate and driven about it.
I’m always fascinated by households with multiple artists. Was there ever a moment where you contemplated doing anything else?
Absolutely. I moved back to New York when I was 17 by myself to pursue my education and career in performing arts. That was amazing but also hard because 17 was really young to be out in the big bad world but I was so excited and passionate and driven and hungry to really delve into my craft and develop my craft and just pursue becoming a great artist. At 19, when I finished at the first conservatory that I started at, it was very important that I needed and wanted a degree before moving on to get a master’s degree. I’ve always had a very deep passion for social justice and social justice issues, being a black child born under apartheid in the 1980’s. That had a very deep impact on me and my heart. That passion was always also inside of me and I’ve also felt very passionate about empowering young people especially from under privileged backgrounds in particularly in my community through education and the performing arts. I’ve either taught or worked in the non-profit world on and off for the past 12 years of my life. But to answer your question, that is sort of what drove me to choose to study International Human Rights Law with a focus on Africa. My undergraduate degree is in Theatre and Musical Theatre and Political Science with a focus on Africa. I had a double major.
Just casually completing multiple degrees…
It was really great because I really believe that artists in general but actors in particular, because we have to inhabit so many different hearts and minds and bodies, we have to portray people from so many different walks of life more than any other kind of arts practitioner. Actors need to really master the art of compassion and of non-judgement and in order to do that you have to have a very broad and diverse experience of the world. I have always been hungry for education and information and just really keen to understand the world better and I am really just fascinated by different people and different cultures and histories. I think I’ve been able to have such a diverse career and not be pigeonholed into one sort of type of role or archetype because my life experience has been broad and I have opened myself up to the world really genuinely and with an open heart and an open mind and a real inquisitiveness. I think I understood at 19 years old that I needed to have a broad education and diverse understanding of the world. During that period I really became very engaged in social justice issues and causes and there was definitely a time there where I really considered leaving a life in the performing arts to become a Human Rights activist and to really take that seriously because there was a real passion inside of my heart for that kind of work. I was going to leave all of this behind and teach children in refugee camps in conflict zones all over Africa. I really thought I could do that. Fast forward to playing Naomi Ajimuda in the new TV show Six that I am a part of and basically literally manifesting that dream vicariously through this character who is exactly that. There was a possibility at some point in my life that could have been the path that I took and how interesting for me to now be cast in this role where I am really almost playing out another version of my life if I had taken that path. There was something deeply satisfying about that and I have to say, I think it is the best work that I have ever done in my entire career.
What was it about King Kong that made you want to be involved? How did this come onto your radar?
I got a call from my agent. I was in LA promoting a TV show and a new movie of mine that had come out and was not thinking about theatre at all and got the call that there was interest in me for King Kong. It just seemed like such a magical and perfect fit. I flew to New York to meet with our incredible and extraordinary visionary director Jonathan Munby and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, our musical director. They shared their vision for the show with me and it was just sort of a perfect fit. I think it was really meant to be.
The role of Joyce ended up becoming an international search…
Yes, it’s taken two years.
This role has labeled as the role that made Miriam Makeba an international star. How did you tackle this role and bring your own spin to it?
What was really pivotal for me in that first meeting with Jonathan was that the way he articulated his approach and what he wants our approach to be is that we are not staging a revival of the original production. We are staging a reimagining of the original production which was really important to me because it then gave us tremendous room for our own artistic interpretation and expression. I am very grateful for that. That was really important and very liberating for me because I think there is nothing more hindering and debilitating to an artist’s creativity than the pressure of having to try to recreate someone else’s performance. Can you imagine what it would be like to get up on that stage every single night in front of hundreds of people and be plagued with doubts and insecurities about them comparing our voices? I am really grateful that I was given that permission and freedom because every night on that stage I am celebrating her performance and her extraordinary legacy while also making this role my own. I feel very proud of that because I feel like I have done that. We are honouring her legacy but we are also very different women and have incredibly different voices. Our takes on this role are going to be different. I am not playing Miriam Makeba. I am playing Joyce. There was a very difficult, rocky journey getting to a point where I really was able to make the role my own and even for myself, even mentally, letting go of the pressure of trying to approach the role in such a way that would be kind of like what she sounded like or how she approached it because we have such drastically different voices. This is one of the hardest roles I have ever sung. The role of Joyce, vocally, is exceptionally hard and incredibly complicated and sophisticated and multi-layered and it really stretches my voice and my own range to be extreme in every kind of direction. This role requires every ounce of technique and discipline and focus that I have in order to be able to really master it every night on stage. I am very grateful that I had incredibly supportive musical directors, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and Sipumzo Lucwaba, who really held my hand in guiding me in figuring out how to make these songs my own and how to approach them in such a way where my specific and unique voice could shine through this very challenging music. That was a long and rocky and difficult journey but now that I am on the other side of it, I cannot tell you how incredibly proud I feel in looking back in my tremendous growth both as a human being and in particular as an artist and as a singer in the last two months. The hard work of conditioning my voice and approaching and crafting every moment and every note of this performance really was worth it and in the end has resulted in one of the boldest and bravest performances in my career which I think I will just be eternally grateful for and proud of for the rest of my life.
What do you feel like this role has taught you?
Joyce is bold. She is brave. She is a boss. She is a solider. She’s a fighter. She’s a survivor and I think she is fearless. She doesn’t ask for permission. She steps into the work and attacks life on her own terms and I think that’s been very empowering to inhabit and live inside of. It’s pushed me outside of my comfort zone as a human being and forced me to find the courage to reach for something higher. I definitely think I’ve burst through a lot of my own insecurities and doubts and grown as a performer and as a human being in my confidence and in my mastery of my craft and my skill over my craft.
Now that you’ve just finished the Cape Town run and are about to jump into the Joburg run, what are you most looking forward to?
We definitely have the intention to share this production with the world and reach as many people as possible all over the world. It is an incredibly historic and important and groundbreaking production and I think we are all incredibly proud of what we have created. It is international in terms of the quality of the production and it does need to be shared with the world and reach as many people as possible. I am very excited about that. Johannesburg is a very sophisticated audience and a lot of young, hip and happening professionals and part of the joy of this production has been reintroducing a beloved classic to a new generation. I think the audience in Cape Town is older and predominantly white whereas I think the audiences we’ll have in Johannesburg will be younger and more racially and culturally diverse. I’m excited about that because I’m excited to feel and hear what the response of that audience will be like because it is a different make-up. Every night the show is different. It’s always interesting and fascinating to hear how different audiences respond to the show. I think that is going to be exciting and I’m interested to hear the conversations [that] I am going to have after the show with audience members and with members of the media and with my peers in the performing arts. I’m interested in those conversations because it is a different demographic and I’m interested and excited to hear how the show impacts them and what it inspires in them.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
My mom, Linda Bukhosini, International opera singer extraordinaire. Miriam Makeba was very influential to me as a young singer and songwriter. I consider her to be part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Specifically South African?
Let’s open it up to whoever inspires you.
I would say Angelique Kidjo, West African singer-songwriter and performer. Amel Larrieux and India Arie were very impactful and inspired me greatly as a singer-songwriter. As an actress there are so many different people; Audra McDonald of course. People like Angela Bassett and Viola Davis, Denzel Washington. Right now I am really interested in Marion Cotillard who is just everything. She is just brilliant. I am really interested in her work. Chiwetel Ejiofor really interests me right now. I’m also really interested in Benicio del Toro. He does some really exciting, interesting, very diverse, quirky, dangerous character work and takes a lot of risks and really isn’t afraid to step outside the box and that is what I want for my career. I’ve always been very clear that I don’t want fame and fortune. I want diversity and longevity in my career and to really do work that makes a really meaningful impact on the world. I’m always inspired by artists who are very authentic and grounded in their own voice but also not afraid to challenge themselves and try new things and push themselves outside the boundaries of other people’s boxes [and] their own boxes and comfort zones. I don’t always succeed in that but I certainly always aim for that whenever I approach or am choosing a new role. Joyce has certainly been that for me.
Special thanks to Christine Skinner.