Lesedi Job is an actress and director. Lesedi made her directorial debut in 2017 with Mike van Graan’s When Swallows Cry at the Market Theatre and went on to win the Sophie Mgcina Emerging Voice Award. The production, which has transferred to Cape Town, is currently running at the Baxter Theatre. An accomplished performer in her own right, Lesedi received a Naledi Theatre Award nomination for her role in Lara Foot’s Fishers of Hope. Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I always said that it wasn’t an option for me to be in the arts. I spoke to my mother about what I wanted to do when I matriculated and art was not something that was viable. She was just like, “You need to get a degree and get a serious qualification.” Then I realised how miserable I was at university studying a BA in Journalism and then I entered Idols and I made it into the top 32. I was sitting there going, “I love singing and I love acting but can I actually do that?” When I got to the top 32, I suddenly thought, “Maybe I could actually pursue a career in the arts.” Then my mother, one day, was just like, “Look, there’s the Wits School of Arts. Go and study. Go and do it.” That’s what made me pursue a career in the arts.
What was your time like at Wits?
My time at Wits was awesome. I studied a BMus and a BA Dramatic Arts degree because I was accepted for both. In my first year, I arrived and was a hit as this jazz singer girl and then in my second year, I got my very first lead in a musical and I played Ti Moune in Once on this Island. I had a blast because I created my own course and academically, I was strong enough to go, “I want to take this course and that course.” I studied music and film. I spent my life at the theatre. If I wasn’t watching a play, I was rehearsing for a play. If I wasn’t in class, I was sitting and talking about art. Wits was really great.
When Swallows Cry is your directorial debut. What was it that originally attracted you to this production?
This piece was actually given to me by the artistic director of The Market Theatre, James Ngcobo. We’ve had many conversations where I said that I wanted to direct. He had then spoken to Mike van Graan and said, “Lesedi, I think this would be a great opportunity for you to launch yourself as a director.” He gave me the script and I read it and I freaked out. I think what attracted me to it, and why I insisted to myself [that] I really wanted to do it was, it’s a play that absolutely deals with immigration and migration and refugees but at the same time, it deals with the human spirit. Stories about the human spirit always move me.
How do you feel your career as a performer has lent itself to your approach as a director?
As a performer I have had the great opportunity of playing a variety of different characters. In Fishers of Hope I played a woman from East Africa who lives in a fishing community and a year later I got to play Ruth Younger from A Raisin in the Sun, working with an American accent. I’ve also done plays where I, myself, have had to play different characters within the play. I think I direct from the inside out. I think of what it is that I need as an actress to understand my role and break down the structure, the blocking, the emotion and I give that to the actors.
How do you feel this all-male production has benefitted by having a female voice at the helm?
In society, men are not given an emotional voice. We use our words, we express our feelings and I don’t know if it’s society or the way boys are raised. A man says a line and it holds five different emotions. A woman says five different lines with all of that emotion and so having a woman at the helm of this piece has allowed the piece to go into a very intense emotional place because I have gone, “In just one line, there are five different emotions that you are exploring. So explore them.” I have gone, “This is a space where we want these men to have heart because if they have heart, then the audience is empathetic.” How do I get to [the] heart? I go, “I know you’re a man. I know you’re not allowed to show emotion but here you can and you must.”
In your bio you described the rehearsal process as “frunstration.” Tell me a little bit about that.
This rehearsal process wasn’t so much the ‘frunstration,’ but in 2016 when I created the piece, that was the ‘frunstration’ because you can read a play and you can think about how you are going to make it work but it’s up until you are sitting in a rehearsal room and you realise all the different things that need to be a part of the play and go, “How do I make this work?” I would get my head knotted around a gun and as to where the gun was. Which actor has the gun? Does this gun need to come back into this scene? There are two bags in the play and I went, “Do I need two bags or do I take one bag and find different ways of using it?” Just when I’d think I had figured it out and I figured out how to make the piece work, I would realise that I can’t do it like that. It would be a small thing, a small details that just doesn’t work and it threw the whole thing and messed up the whole thing but there was fun because we just laughed at what could possibly go wrong. The actors would give suggestions and they’d go, “I think I’m going to do this.” and I’d pack up laughing and then you’ve got three different people saying all of these three different things and then you are just like, “Wait guys. Keep quiet.” At some point I would just say, “Listen, you keep quiet. You be a body and when I say left you go left. When I say right, you go right.” That was the ‘frunstration.’
As a director, what do you perceive the biggest challenging facing young female directors right now?
I think when there aren’t a lot of people doing what you are doing, that will always be a challenge because we kind of need to see the possibility of doing something before we aspire towards it. It’s very difficult when you don’t see something to go, “I’m going to go and be that” because you don’t know what that looks like. I think there isn’t enough mentorship around young women in the arts in general. There is also, and I will be specific, yes it’s female but it’s also black female. I can count female directors that I know of, that I respect, that I’ve worked with. Black female directors? There are very few. It is a challenge. The fact that there isn’t, and I think it’s exactly that, if you can’t see people to look up to, it’s very difficult to go out there and do it.
You were awarded the Sophie Mgcina Emerging Voice Award. How do you feel that resource has helped you?
That wasn’t really a resource. I got the award because of doing Swallows. The resource was an artistic director going, “Here is a play. Direct it.” That was it and me throwing myself in it and him going, “Right, here is another play. Direct it.” And Mike van Graan going, “I like what you did with Swallows. Here is another play. Direct it.” Then afterwards, I got the Sophie Mgcina Award because of being an emerging voice but it literally was someone giving me an opportunity to try this. I think beyond that, it was someone giving me an opportunity knowing that I could. I’m all for us giving opportunities but not just for the sake of trying to create a variety of female directors or black female directors. Maybe it’s not something that someone can do so maybe let’s not go out there and give it to everyone but as a director, spot that in an actress and encourage it and then give them the opportunity. Unfortunately, it really is for institutions to open up the doors and go, “Here is the opportunity to direct.” I know there are other young female directors who are just directing on their own without doing it through an institution.
This is only the beginning for you. What are your hopes for the rest of your career?
Oh my goodness. Firstly, there is a musical that I have, must and will direct. Someone said to me, “But Lesedi, aren’t you a singer? And now you are directing? What do you do?” I think there are people who know me as someone who sings and even though when I walked into the industry, I did a lot of drama, in varsity I was a musical theatre girl. People still look at me and they don’t believe it because they go, “You are that actress that immerses that steam!” And I am like, “But I’m also that girl who can do a musical.” I have this dream of [spending] six months in South Africa, six months in London or six months in New York. I want to be global. Without a shadow of a doubt, I have that hope. I hope to always stay fresh. You say it’s the beginning and I think what happens is in life we think we’ve arrived or we don’t have to do any more. I never want to go, “I’m only making this kind of theatre.” Whatever is happening in theatre when I’m 50, I hope I can tap into that and create a piece of work that speaks to that time and place and style. It’s going to be interesting to see where we will be and I’d like to make sure that I’ve got my pulse on it and I can still create.
Going off of what you just said in terms of being a musical theatre performer, a dramatic performer and a director of this incredibly tough play, is it a conscious choice to show people that you don’t just fit into one box? Or is this just a natural extension of who you are?
It’s a natural extension of who I am. I struggled as a child being boxed in. The minute you say I am A,B,C, I actually go out of my way to do the opposite. I grew up, I was a tomboy. I have tomboy tendencies but I am also a lady. It’s an extension of self. I could never understand why I had to do one thing. It started in varsity where I went, “BA Dramatic Arts? BMus? I want to do the courses on film as well.” It is definitely an extension of Lesedi Job.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Lara Foot, Sue Pam-Grant, Megan Wilson, Sibongile Khumalo, Judith Sephuma, Xoliswa Ngema. There are people I’ve worked with but it’s also people where I’ve gone, “You’ve done it and you are still doing it.” Yaël Farber, Nthati Moshesh, Warona Seane. My peers. All of my peers.
Special thanks to Mari Stimie and Candice van Litsenborgh.