Leanetse Seekoe is a performer and theatre-maker. Upon graduating from UCT’s Drama department in 2014, Leanetse was nominated for a Fleur du Cap award in the Most Promising Student category. Recently, Leanetse wrote 4 cups 1 tbsp while she pursued her Masters of Arts in English and Comparative Literature. In 2017, she performed her debut one woman play, 4 cups 1 tbsp at The Market Theatre Laboratory and The Plat4orm in Johannesburg, and Theatre Arts Admin Collective in Cape Town.
Who or what inspired you to purse a career in the arts?
I basically grew up on stage. I was a dancer and then I went into music and then I didn’t like either of them. Because I didn’t know what life was like out of that realm, I thought to myself, “My mom gave me this talent therefore I need to find something that is my own that no one else has given to me.” Then I found acting. The first monologue I did was Lady Macbeth. I was 15 and my drama teacher was crying and I was like, “I can do that! I can make people feel.” I fell in love with it for that reason. I could remove myself from myself, step into another world and communicate with other people.
I wanted to ask you about your time at UCT. I understand that there was quite a journey involving choosing between being a performer or a theatre-maker.
I was only an actress. I told myself, “I’m an actress. I know nothing else. I can’t write. I don’t have a director’s eye.” How I realized that I’m not only an actress was that something had to be pulled away from me and say, “Do more.” That was my career. My career was shoved out from under my feet and life just said, “Do more.” What I also learned is that with acting, we depend on other people. You depend on the director or on someone else’s writing. Life just said to me, “You have to be an actress who has a voice. You have to be an actress who has something to say.” I always knew that but I didn’t think about it because I had to write something and I had to create my own theatre in order for me to be that hard actress. I just thought that I had to figure myself out, find out what I like and what I enjoy, what irritates me, what upsets me and then mold that into who I am as an actress and if that wasn’t enough, life just said, “You have to give it more.” I started reading other people’s writing, in general, in magazines and different places. I just started writing and basically eavesdropping on other people’s stuff. That was three or four years ago. Finally, I started writing because I was hurting for my career. My career was missing and I was like, “I miss you. I don’t know where you are.” I’m trying to find this career and I’m trying to find myself as well, not just in my career but in life as well as a woman [and] as a black woman. I am 26 next year, I need to figure out who I am as a woman so that when someone comes and tries something on me, I can be like, “No, that’s not who I am.” When I go for an audition, I can say, “No, I don’t do these type of castings. I don’t want it.” When I was writing, those were the feelings that I was going through.
As more actors enter into the industry, the obvious thing to do is to create your own. I know you are saying that this came out of a place of necessity but there is still an element of courage that must have sparked within you.
I think the courage came from feeling like, if I don’t do this, I will never ever come back. I’ve been going to auditions for four years and I’ve only had two callbacks. I know I’m not a horrible actress. As I’m going to these auditions, I realize something is not being said that I have to contribute. The scariest thing is that I am an honest person. Sometimes I don’t have a filter and so I had to find a way to be that honest person and just let it go and say, “I said it. I know there are people who are going to be very upset but in this moment I can’t sugarcoat because these are issues that no one else wants to talk about.” I realized that no one else wants to raise these points. When I raise them, everyone is like, “I don’t go through that.” We are all ashamed of, “If I do say that I’ve gone through that, then I look like a certain type of person.” For instance, people are scared of the black feminist image because it’s angry, it’s bitter, it’s a woman who has been hurt before. It’s like, “No, I’m honest because I’ve had uncomfortable situations within this type of place where there is a workplace relationship or whatever.” I think it’s really scary to be who you are in a place where you are rejected the most but I saw that is the only answer. If I’m doing everything the way that everyone is doing it but I’m being rejected, let me try doing it this way. Maybe that is the answer to it.
Now that you’ve successful completed the run of 4 cups, 1 tbsp and you’ve said what you wanted to put out into the world, how are you feeling?
When I wrote this and I decided to put it out into the world, I expected a lot of negative feedback. I expected people to tell me that what I wrote isn’t necessary and that it’s not true. I expected people to tell me that my writing isn’t good. I expected people to tell me that my work or my acting is not refined. I expected a lot of negative vibes and I got the opposite…which scares me. It really scares me because I’m like, “I don’t think you heard me. I don’t think you heard everything that I had to say.”
I feel like there was a positive response to it because audience members crave honesty.
I believe that too but I guess the reason I was afraid was because everyone is following this Black Girl Magic trend. I can’t relate to people because I have done so much research, even prior to the trend. I did so much research physically and I experienced so much pain as a black female that all of these movements, for me, are way too romantic to be true. I don’t involve myself in them. Because I don’t involve myself in them, I know I am an outcast. I know I’m the black sheep of these movements. I’m not saying what the trends are saying. I’m not saying what everyone is expecting me to say. For instance, I’ve had people ask me, “Who do you write for?” I know what you want me to say. You want me to say that I write for black women but I don’t. I write for women who think like me, who speak like me, who see the world like I see it. Maybe you have experienced something that I experienced but it is not from the same perspective. I’m an honest person. If something sexist happens to me, somehow my mouth can’t move and I am no longer honest. I’m filled with so much fear and it’s embarrassing. When I come out of it I’m like, “Why didn’t I speak up? Why didn’t I say anything?” I know there are women who have gone through it but there has never been a woman who has said, “I had a sexist experience yesterday. I still believe that I am a feminist.” A lot of people think you are a feminist because you are successful, you are a winner, you’ve triumphed. No, you can be a feminist and still be abused. You can be a feminist and still feel like you are the minority. That is the whole point. Finding this journey of black feminism and all of that, made me afraid of coming out with this text because I knew that people would say, “Speak for me.” I can’t speak for you. I am just as awkward and normal as you are. I’m just as insecure and afraid as you are. I’m not going to be your statue of liberty. I’m not going to be your savior.
If you look at the movements that are taking place globally right now, this is almost a case of your work being the right kind of material to come out at the right time.
I don’t want to be part of a trend. It just came at a weird time. Another reason why I wrote this play was because it was like, “Enough. It hurts too much.” This morning I woke up and I was like, “Why am I still here? I’ve written this play, I thought I’ve healed. Why am I still going through these things?” I’m still 26, that’s why. I’m still in my twenties. Maybe if you are in your late thirties, you can wonder why you are still feeling these things but I got to a point where what I was allowing to happen to me pushed me to speak. Now, unfortunately it’s the same time as these movements and everyone is speaking about this. I don’t want to be part of a trend because I don’t want to look like Beyoncé in Lemonade. I don’t want to sell these things because these things hurt. They are real things that we go through as women. I don’t want to be a hashtag.
What was the process like of creating this play?
When I was writing these monologues, I just wrote them almost as if I was writing in a diary. It’s everything that is in my mind and for me, it was like sewing a wound. Something would happen or I would remember something that happened and I was like, “No, I don’t want to feel that. There’s no one I can speak to about that but let me write down what it feels like.” The first monologue I wrote was Ingredients. She became sarcastic but in the beginning it was frustration of how I’m portrayed in the world as a fair-skinned black girl who has a petite body. People would say to me, “You should go to Joburg. You will really make it in the film industry there.” Then I get there and I am competing with weaves. So then I’m like, “Where is this thing that people keep talking about?” And they are like, “You are fair-skinned and you are petite therefore you will make it.” And I’m like, “What about talent?” When I wrote Ingredients, that’s what I was thinking of. I never thought it would become that character. It became that character a year after I wrote it. I was just sitting, meditating and I wasn’t even thinking about the monologue. I just saw this woman cooking. “Oh! That’s why her name is Ingredients.” Another example was Temperature. I wrote that when I was at the worst in my life. I thought I hid it well. I went into my phone and I went into notes and wrote this monologue, because I was teaching, about these girls. I don’t know why I started speaking about them to ease my pain of what I was going through and my anxieties. I just wrote about it. I realized that what I was going through wasn’t mad problems. It was the fact that I was teaching these kids and they were going through so much that I was absorbing their energies. I didn’t have an exercise where I could remove myself from that world. I carried that world with me. I wrote it because I was frustrated with why I had to be the one who takes on all of these burdens. As I’m asking this, I realized that this is a woman’s job. We take the blame, we take the pain, we take the punches and then we can’t speak about it. I would write and then research [it] like it was not me. I would do research on why I wrote them and what led me to write them. I’m very spiritual so I believe it’s not me who wrote it, it’s whatever I was feeling that wrote it. That energy clearly wants to do something. I researched more and I realized that person is my mother who has taken on all of this stuff. I realized it’s her but how come I can relate to all of that? You can say that you are tough but when it happens to you, you realize that you are not tough. When I was doing research with these characters, I realized that it wasn’t about me. It’s about women out there that I still haven’t met.
Ultimately, you created this piece and ended up starring in it but you had to hand it over to a director. Was it easy to let go of?
No! This play is a secret. It was never supposed to come out. I was literally going to write it and hide it somewhere where I couldn’t find it in my files on my laptop. This was just supposed to heal me. It wasn’t supposed to be a play. The mistake I made was that I kept saying that, “If I find a director, I want someone who has been through a really tough time in life so that when she comes, she is very sensitive and humble about it. That she knows how sacred this thing is. It has to be done very well because this play is not supposed to be out.” It was tough letting go. I was like, “What have I done?” Maybe I’m too controlling. What I learned from the process is that just because you might call yourself a feminist and I might call myself a feminist, we are not going to have the same understanding. We are both stubborn so it was really tough in that but I expected that. Most women are stubborn, most women are tough, I get that but when there were mistakes, I had to be a boss which I don’t want to be. I want to be an actress but I had to be a boss. If you say I must walk left, I’m like, “Why must I walk left?” Some directors don’t like that. I’m doing my research as I’m going so I’m that actress who needs an answer for everything. It was really tough. I’m not ashamed of this but I became obsessed with the play because I realized that if I’m not obsessed with the play then it will be out of my hands. Let me find a way to make this more of a collaborative method so that I am part of the directing.
I’m very interested in hearing more about the thesis you are writing.
My philosophy in life is just language in general. Languages that are dying, they call it linguistic suicide, Lingocide. I’m crazy about Lingocide. The thesis at the moment is based on black South African accents and how they are perceived and treated in higher educational institutions and how that affects their work spaces [and] performance spaces be it film, television, theatre or radio. When I’m working in radio, how am I expected to speak? Do I allow that? Do I expect myself to sound like that? I’m collecting my research and conducting interviews and I heard someone yesterday say something like, “We are expected to sound a certain way as black South Africans but it is so tough for us to sound that way, to have a neutral accent. It’s not easy for us to have a ‘neutral’ accent because there are so many languages.” Most of us grow up speaking our languages [and] then we go into English. Some of us have spoken English more than our mother tongue so then it’s difficult. Sometimes that frustrates me that I can never have this general voice. That is what I am interested in. How can black South African’s learn to speak in different accents? Not just in RP or general American because those are ones that we receive in castings but how can we make our acting so fresh that people want to use us and say, “I like how you sound there. Let’s use that.” And not just being a stereotyped character or story. Let’s use it because it tells the truth. There is so much more nuance in how we sound that people disregard that.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I think Nadia Davids is absolutely amazing. She is a very powerful woman and I love her stuff.
You can stay updated on Leanetse’s debut play 4 cups, 1 tbsp via Facebook.
Special thanks to Wynne Bredenkamp and Hannah Baker.
All photos were taken by Wynne Bredenkamp on November 16th 2017.
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