Qondiswa James is an actress, director, theatre-maker and the latest recipient of Theatre Arts Admin Collective’s Emerging Theatre Directors Bursary. Her production, A Faint Patch of Light, which an interpretation of Athol Fugard’s Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act, will be staged at Theatre Arts Admin from May 27th until June 2nd. As an actress she has starred in internationally acclaimed film productions including Into Us and Ours, High Fantasy and The Foxy Five.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I think I felt like I was always going to be somehow into something but I used writing as a way out or a way through for a long time since I was quite young and then it just developed. I was going to be a doctor but I think I made the decision after I was 17 and you have to go to this work experience. I went to Westville Hospital and there was some kind of switch up so I got to be with the nurses instead of the doctors and then I saw the truth.I saw the truth which is that it’s different. The doctors just flirt their way through and they don’t actually deal with the people. They deal with the body but not the human and the nurses are there to deal with the humans. It’s so hard to do this and these nurses are getting paid nothing compared to the doctors who are coming in and they are insensitive to the patients. While I was there, during my lunch breaks, I wrote a play about it, about these nurses just being there and these sick patients in this sick place and these doctors who just come through and don’t care. I think that’s when I decided.
You went on to study Theatre and Performance. What was your time like studying?
I think, and I have more clarity now that I’m out, the academy is not a good space. It’s not a good place. It’s not for the learning experience of the student. It’s for the student as research material. I was uncomfortable the whole time and being out of that particular system is a lot better for me. Although, now I’m sure there is going to be the next beast which is the system as opposed to microcosms and microcosms of institutions but I am also more interested in grappling with the bigger beast. It was difficult and it took a long time. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to do and I appreciate that my time there happened to overlap with this moment in time and the collaborations and comrades that I’ve made.
The news has just come out that you’ve been named as the latest recipient of Theatre Arts Admin Collective’s Emerging Theatre Directors Bursary. How are you feeling?
I think [it’s] cool and I don’t know how many people may have applied but obviously I am glad that I got it because I’ve got some shit to say and some stories to tell. This is a project that came out of a small directing project last year and Caroline [Calburn] came to UCT and she spoke about the throwaway culture of theatre, how a work is reproduced once and then that’s it and it never comes back. For me, I’m about refining the work continuously throughout its lifespan which is my lifespan. Nwabisa [Plaatjie] and Thando [Mangcu] got [the Bursary] before, and Ameera [Conrad] and Jason [Jacobs] and all these people got it before. I think it’s really cool to stand with people who I respect, having gotten this thing and I think that more things like this need to happen. We shouldn’t all have to be groveling for it and we shouldn’t all have to be chatting about how grateful we are that it’s happening. Money should just be there and even Caroline shouldn’t have to work so hard to get people’s buy in. At any theatre trying to do work that is not a government subsidised, more. “Ok, cool thanks. I got it but more.” I need more. I need more funding and the state must make it available.
What was your application process like?
Because it came from something that I had already done and had been chewing on for a little bit, I had footage and material from it. I had photo footage and archives because during that time I used the footage that I had shot to make social media videos for trailers and different ways because I like multi-disciplinary work, different ways into the same piece and how all of these different arts practices form and inform each others practice. My application was those videos [and] photographs. I have this queen friend of mine, Chaze Matakala, who always comes into the process and documents when we are in the middle of it. She just lives in it and she comes into the rehearsal space, so it feels like another performer to a collaboration even though what comes out of that and what you see of it, is the stills. It was the stills, video and then I wrote [what] felt like an essay. You had to do a proposal. I was writing it while I was writing my thesis at the same time, so it’s very academic. It’s Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act and in the proposal document you had to say why this text and all of these things. A couple of years ago I saw Kim Kerfoot’s iteration of it at The Fugard. It was actually the first theatre piece I had seen in Cape Town because it was on during my first year here and I saw it just before we went to drama school. It’s so real. It’s true, yes but honest. It’s a presentation of subjectivity. I knew that I’d have to do it at some point. In the application process I said, “I know that it’s been done but this is also where I position myself on how it’s been done before” and trying to locate it now from my particular identity and my particular honest place.
What are you most looking forward to in regards to the production?
We’ve kind of started the process. Art-making is process for the maker. Once you are there, then it’s for the audience and then I really must let go and I’m trying to do that better. I’m looking forward to being on the floor. A lot of it is movement based and a lot of the practice at UCT is body based. It’s like being on the floor and getting down with your actors, talking about yourselves, talking about things, lots of in-between stages. I’m looking forward to being on the floor. I work in stages. Now we are in the research part of it and I research with my performers because I want to use them as collaborators, not as an actor body. We research together. I’m looking forward to it now that we’ve begun. We’ll get on the floor in mid May. So this is the time to research and play.
How do you feel your experience as a performer has lent itself to your directing?
I took six years to finish this four-year degree and I honestly think that if I had taken just four years, I would have learned a lot and I’ve seen people do it in four years, but I really feel like I… you know like with a bone when you are eating the meat?That’s what I feel like I did with my education. Towards the end, I really took agency and I understood what it was for because I actually feel like it takes three to four years to understand why they are teaching you what they are teaching you, but how can you expect me to learn? I can’t understand. I think it’s really valuable when you come to an understanding of what all of these tools that they are giving you are for which is of course to equip you to do the stuff so that you walk onto the stage [or] onto the floor and it’s like second nature. Having studied it, and for so long, has helped me hone my intuition and so I just get on it and I trust.
One of the things I really wanted to talk to you about was your involvement in The Foxy Five. What was your experience like being part of that?
A lot of us were still at school. It was a passion project collaboration. Jabu [Newman] came with something really tight and something really interesting and she came to particular people who she felt would bring something into the collaboration. She chose specifically. It wasn’t random casting. It also was one of the first spaces where I started to experiment with collaborative filmmaking into how we understand workshopping in theatre and devising in the theatre and that is a collaboration tool. And then, collaborative storytelling as decolonial practice, essentially like a way of telling our story without so much violence. Sometimes it feels like telling our story is about telling your story. So how do we not do that? How do we actually tell our story? It was a growing space and it was powerful. Just these black womxn, black femmes at a particular time as well in the politics, which is still happening right now, all the time, every day but also at a particular time where people were wrestling with language and the language of the feminist radical black womxn ideologies specially located here. Having this specific stuff, these words that are just coming through from the university, it was like, how do we also mediate, to everybody, this knowledge that does belong to them and how do we connect outside of the university space to share this knowledge and find new ways of talking about ourselves? How do we do that poetically and beautifully? It was an empowering space. Whenever we got together it just was affirmation constantly. The black matriarchy is powerful. It felt like a utopian home space, if you think about the system. I really appreciated the project development. My favourite episode is the last episode because it is just so beautifully made and you can see that this group of people have grown their tools together over this season which was also trying to mediate growing a language in this particular time. This is also why people need money. If Jabu got money and people didn’t say to her, “Now we come with these conditions and whatnot…” If people just gave her the money and said, “I think you are brilliant and I think this project is brilliant and important,” then we can begin to do something. It’s a good project. I don’t think its done.
You were also part of Jessie Zinn’s Into Us and Ours and Jenna Bass’ High Fantasy which I think is really cool because there doesn’t seem to be enough compelling roles for young people and these films are written by young women for young voices. How do you go about sourcing this work?
This is also what I appreciate about the film work. My relationship with Jessie started in 2015 on a project called Umva that we did together. Jessie, Namisa Mdlalose, Puleng [Stewart] and Chase [Musslewhite] and all these other people. Puleng, Namie and I were in it and we were doing performance art because of this whole thing of mediating to people because there is a lot that gets lost in the translation. Maybe if you see it happening, if this body does what it is that it is trying to tell you and it just does it, it drives people in a different way. We were doing that, mediating in conversation and collaboration with the people who are our comrades. Jessie came in and was just like, “I’ve got material to archive.” And we were like, “Ok, this is also another way to continue this conversation.” Umva was just at MOMA now. It’s interesting. If we hadn’t done that project, there wouldn’t have been an archive of what was being said and what we were experiencing there while we were doing the archive. The film was interesting, it was an experimental thing that she did for her UCT experimental project when she was in final year. It was like she saw and then she called us in. A lot of the time that is how it happens with other people. We come across each other and then we realise and then I call in and they call in. With the film work, its been people calling me in because they are looking to rupture this idea of stereotype. My existence is protest. There is no stereotype. There is only one and one again and one again and those form a collective community but there is no stereotype of being black, of being a womxn, of being. There is no type, I guess, not in the way I experience my existence. There has been an element of collaboration in all of the projects, so bringing in some of yourself. With High Fantasy, we crafted the characters from the bottom. How do you not make a stereotype? You begin from scratch. You layer every character layer by layer. I’m in the creation like god’s creation of man, layer by layer. But I don’t think I would work for commercial work. I was in LA for High Fantasy and I was just there in Hollywood like, “You can’t sell me here.” I think, as in I’m present in myself and I’m not going to diminish or be any less. Just because you wear a nice dress, I’m still a fucking dragon queen.
I’m realising now while we are talking about those projects that they’ve done so well overseas without any help or minimal recognition here.
That disturbs me. I think one of these things is that I try to circulate whenever I am invited to share something. If its film related stuff I’ll share the work in black spaces and different kinds of spaces. I have been engaging in my own small circles. Into Us and Ours belongs to UCT. If you could even think of distribution, which I would love, just put it on YouTube. Give people access. We don’t have distribution rights in capitalism. I think that’s a problem of the distributors but it really disturbs me because the work is for us here. It’s not about the international audience but I think High Fantasy will be here in the next couple of months. I hope so. Otherwise I’ll just get a projector and I’ll just screen it right here. The global thing… I think it’s because the global has a fetish for our local, for black South African. Our local is this particular body. I think that’s why it does well there, it’s nice to look at it from far but its harder with us here and with that consumer effect.With me, it’s like how do we get art to do the exact kind of work that the politicians are doing and get it to be engaged with in the same way so that it generates as much conversation and contributes as much to what this place is as opposed to how the global world is?
What are your hopes for the rest of your career?
I want to push myself as an ethical being located in a particular narrative, which is that I am a black, queer femme, Xhosa, rural, all of these things but that I cannot, even as an artist, divorce myself from being a civilian in the world which is what I am: a person trying to exist ethically in community and using my practice and the tools that I’ve been gifted by ancestors [and] by impulse to communicate with others in this community. How it is that I think I would like us to exist. I want to see, for my career, a paradigm shift in the states. That’s what I want.
Who are some South African womxn in the arts that inspire you?
Warona Seane, Jackie Manyaapelo. Sara Matchettis a great influence and Warona as well. These are incredible people. Now, just being here with Jennie [Reznek], this woman is out here. All of these womxn in theatre, especially in these kinds of theatres, I’m just like, “How are you not cracked?!” Because it’s difficult and they are just soldiering. And the men, Jennie’s co-directors, are doing what they should to be doing which is being pillars but actually allowing the creativity, that womb creative to create, to birth something. I just see her go through a process and I am just like, “Yoh Queen.” It’s not effortless. That bullshit about, “You just carry it so effortlessly.” It’s not effortless. It’s tough work. Jennie taught me briefly in first and second year. Now, I’ve been [at Magnet] for two months and the relationship is growing and I’m seeing what she is doing when she is not teaching us and I’m just like, “Are you not brilliant?!” And Lesoko [Seabe]. She also contributed greatly to my practice. She is incredible.
You can follow Qondiswa on Instagram.
All photos were taken by Chanel Katz at Magnet Theatre on April 13th 2018.