Triple threat, Sihle Ndaba is well-known to South African audiences for her award-winning role as ‘Smangele Maphumulo’ in SABC 1’s hit primetime soap Uzalo, for which she won the Simon Sabela Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2015. She is currently making a return to her musical theatre roots by starring as ‘Petal’ in The Fugard Theatre’s return season of King Kong. We sat down with her to chat about joining the illustrious company and navigating the fame that comes along with starring on South African television.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
My family. Everybody in my family sings but none of them have taken it seriously. I believe that your talents are a way for you to serve god. We all have different talents. Some people, like myself, are performers, however, my mom is a teacher, that is her way of serving. I’ve always loved performing and it was just a natural progression of things, I guess.
I read that you studied at TUT. What was your time like there?
It was the best time of my life! When you are studying something that you love, and especially going from primary school which was ok, I hated high school because I went to a technical high school. I didn’t fit in. I was so different from everyone else. Everyone that was there either wanted to be a doctor or an engineer and I had maths and science and I was just like, “I just want to sing. I just want to act.” They didn’t really cater for that. They had it as an extra mural activity so no one really took it seriously. TUT was the best years of my life. I found like-minded people. It’s incredible because I’m sharing the stage with a lot of them right now. I loved that place so much. It brings back so many fond memories.
What attracted you to King Kong?
My goodness. It’s a timeless piece. It’s a South African piece. It doesn’t get any better than this. Miriam Makeba was part of it. Hugh Masekela was part of it. Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of it? There would be something wrong with me, really. I would have to have my head checked.
You’re two weeks into your run. How has it been going?
I just realize how unfit I am to be honest. Musical theatre is so different as a discipline. You are not just acting, you are doing all three at the same time. It takes a lot of stamina and a lot of discipline as well because a lot of us have to be very careful about what we eat. It’s a lot. I’m very unfit. That’s one thing for sure especially when you are doing a seven show week.
And especially with all those stairs!
I go up and down those stairs quite a bit. I’m going to have nice legs by the end of the run though, so I’m not complaining at all.
When you are doing a musical, like this one which is so vocally demanding, how do you have to structure your life?
The rehearsal process for me is the hardest part because then you don’t have a day to yourself however, once we move into the theatre and you’ve done your tech, it gets easier because I only have to be at the theatre earliest at 5:30pm unless there is a crisis. I have the rest of the day to go to other auditions and work on other projects that I maybe have lined up. It’s quite cool to do theatre. If you are lucky enough or blessed enough to have work during the day, you can do something else during the day and the show in the evening. And you have to be fit for that as well.
I know you’ve done other musicals but in terms of King Kong, you joined the cast midway into this run. What was that replacement experience like?
It was hard. I won’t lie. It was hard because you had to imagine all the bodies that you’ll be interacting with. When you’ve started a rehearsal process from the beginning, you don’t have to image anything because everything is there. I had to image for a lot of the time. Also, it’s not the same process. When you are rehearsing a show from the beginning, it’s normally about six weeks. This time I had about two weeks to learn the track. It’s completely different. It’s like everything is on fast forward but it was fun. I wouldn’t want to change that process because it also challenges you as an artist and I think a challenge is always good. You always want to be pushed. You want to see how quickly you can pick up things. I hadn’t done musical theatre in a while so it was good. I’m like, “I’ve still got it!”
What has playing Petal taught you?
Petal reminds me of a younger me. I used to like this guy in primary school and he had no time for me. I believe a lot of us women can identify with that. We’ve all had, some way or another, had someone like that in our lives. Sometimes you need to pick the person who is good for your mental health. I can identify with her journey and I’m a fan of her journey because she makes the right decision and she’s a strong woman. She’s a teacher and in the ’50’s if you are a teacher, I mean, as a female? It’s groundbreaking because girls going to school wasn’t really a priority. The fact that she’s a teacher, so she’s not just educated herself, but she’s making sure that she is paying it forward to generations to come. I’m a fan. I’m a huge fan of Petal.
You’ve managed to transition quite effortlessly between stage and screen. What do you like about that on-screen medium?
I love doing silver screen because every day is a new challenge. It’s a different script so you are pushing yourself every single day. However, with theatre, it’s stamina and always pushing yourself to be better than your last performance. They are both very challenging but I enjoy on-screen because I get to play a whole lot of different characters or a lot of different emotions at a faster pace. The challenge of that, once again there’s that word challenge, I think that’s the big thing for screen for me. I get to play a lot of different characters than I would onstage because when you are onstage, you are part of a long run and then you move onto another.
Your time on TV has awarded you this huge platform. How do you navigate all the attention?
I don’t. I don’t and I think if ever I said, “I do,” I’d be lying. It’s not a normal thing that you are going to the pharmacy to get painkillers and you are in pain but you need to smile for pictures. It’s not normal. It comes with a lot of responsibility as well because suddenly, you are getting messages from people who look up to you and parents who want you to mentor their children. It’s a lot. I’ll be honest, there is no way to navigate that. There is no way and it’s a lot of pressure especially because there is a tendency to be treated like the character that you are playing, which is very dangerous because if people don’t like you, things happen. There is no navigating that, well certainly not for me.
What do you wish people knew about you?
That I’m human. I’m a real person with real feelings and that I am just another girl who just decided to go for it and not look back and not worry too much about what everybody else is saying. I come from a small town but I was raised by a wonderful community and people who really uplift me so I really just want people to know that if I could do it, whatever it is that you want to do and pursue, it’s possible. If I can do it, so can you.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be?
Follow your intuition. Your gut instinct is never wrong. We tend to be like, “Nah, you are imagining things…” But most of the time, when you are feeling a certain way about a certain things or people or events, more often than not, you are right. You are right about that. Trust your instinct. Look for that and follow it and follow through with it.
Now that you’ve returned to theatre, do you have any dream roles that you’d like to play?
I’d love to do The Color Purple. I’d love to do Dreamgirls. I’d love to do The Lion King again but this time I don’t want to be an understudy. I just want to be Nala. I’d really like to play those characters in those shows. They resonate with me and I think they are powerful stories that need to be told very often.
This is still relatively the beginning of your career, what are your hopes for the rest?
I just want to make epic, excuse my french, epic shit happen. I want to be part of epic things [and] epic productions because we have no idea how much of an impact entertainment is. I want to do movies. I want to do more dramas, series, all of that and maybe an album somewhere down the line. That would be dope.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Leleti Khumalo, Pamela Nomvete. There are so many. Nandi Nyembe, Moonyeen Lee…she is a beast! I believe she is the only South African, if not African judge at The Oscars. Groundbreaking! I want to be a part of that. Obviously, Charlize [Theron]. There are so many…almost all of them! You can learn something from everybody. You really can.