Faniswa Yisa is an actress, theatre-maker and director who has performed in 19 countries and whose work has spanned almost two decades. She is currently starring in the TV drama series Ingoma and was recently awarded a 2018 Best Actress Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for her performance in Nadia Davids’ critically acclaimed play, What Remains. We sat down to chat about her career, her Fleur du Cap win and staying true to herself.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
Before I did drama, I did fashion design. I’m a fashion design drop out. I lasted for a year and a half and then I started working with Mandla Mbothwe. He was doing a project with a woman who stayed in my neighbourhood who was a theatre and television actor. He started telling me about UCT and the drama course that they have there and I thought, “That’s quite interesting.” That year I dropped fashion. The following year I went to audition at UCT and I got in. In a way, Mandla inspired me. He is the person who actually got me to theatre. In general, women inspire me. Women’s stories inspire me and how we navigate and survive in this world full of trash is amazing. Big ups to us women.
What was your time like at UCT?
I was in Drama school from 1998- 2000. It was weird because there was so much divide. There were white plays and there were black plays and there was something in between which was kind of like Mark Fleishman’s kind of vibe. I ended up working more with Mark than anyone else. I didn’t fit into the black productions or the white productions. I still don’t know why. There wasn’t enough material for black women especially. We were constantly playing “the others.” I think some of it has changed now and now it is more open because when I was there, it was about acting. We didn’t have theatre-making or the beautiful stuff that they have now. It was hard and you could feel the divide. Even the seating arrangement was divided. There are the steps that go up to Hiddingh that we used to call Khayelitsha which was where all the black students sat and then you had the grass where a lot of the white students would sit. That was Constantia.
I’ve worked with Nadia [Davids] before. When I was in drama school, she wrote a piece about a family and I think I played one of her aunts. We already had a relationship and we’ve been friends since then. I was excited when she called me for this project because I love her writing. I think she is a phenomenal writer. When I read this script, it was just something that spoke to me. It has a lot to do with the bones that were uncovered, especially in Cape Town. Because I believe in energies, [I feel] there is an energy in Cape Town that is very scary and violent in a way. I feel like the spirits are lost because they have never found home. People just died and they were buried somewhere and that was it. It is something that speaks to me and I was excited being in that process. When I was nominated there was a bit of a strange feeling because there was a protest last year and I was one of the people who has always been vocal about the Fleurs. It felt weird because the first thought that came into my mind when I saw the nomination was, “Does one want to be nominated after a protest?” One starts questioning the whole notion about tokenism. I started questioning a lot of things and I was actually questioning until the day of winning it. Then I went through other emotions when my name was called and the response was overwhelming. Suddenly, I thought one should not be selfish. I should not make this about me because people kept saying, “It’s about time you got it.” People have been rooting for me and then it becomes like a conflict because ultimately, it is not just about me. There is something that people feel like I represent and some people feel like I am empowering them. It is not just about me. I’ve been doing fine without any nomination for 18 years but I understood the power of being seen. There was a thing about me being visible and being acknowledged that some people felt like it gave them hope. I’ll run with that. Then of course, there was a whole thing on Facebook. Some people felt like I didn’t deserve it. Some people thought that someone else should have gotten it. Fair enough. I’m fine with that but I’m very aware of the bigger picture.
I don’t know if you know this but you are one of the most named “inspiring women” on this platform. Your name comes up so often. Are you able to acknowledge how much your work means to people?
I am curious about life in general. I’m curious about human nature. I’m curious about people as an individual because as writers and makers, we tend to go for the popular culture where you want to sell because you feel like that is what needs to sell. Then you forget that when you are onstage and you are playing someone, those people do exist. Someone does exist so it is very important that you portray them with as much integrity and honesty as possible. I think I’ve worked with most of the people who you’ve interviewed and I guess, maybe, it is my work ethic. I think I work hard. I think I am honest in the process because I do feel like storytelling is important and with its importance, we have a duty when we are telling that story to inspire, to give hope, to reflect all of those things. I always approach my projects like that.
How do you go about choosing the work that you do?
It’s not always a choice. Sometimes you just need to pay your bills and take on projects but it’s how you deal with that project when you’re inside. I believe you could have the ‘kakest’ script but if you put a lot of work in it and do your job and find it, because there is always a story to tell. Sometimes you don’t have the right tools on how to tell it but the story itself is important and for me, it’s about stripping whatever that script is and then finding that message you want to portray or that story that you want to tell. It’s hard work. Sometimes it is emotionally exhausting. I guess what I’m saying is that we don’t always get to choose but when you do choose, you need to go in there and give it your best. There is nothing worse than getting off stage and going, “Eh.” I just find it disrespectful. I think its bad ethics. Once you’ve said, “Yes” to a project, you need to give it your all. It doesn’t matter how much you think it’s ‘kak.’ Most of the time, I do choose and for instance [with] Nadia, there is no doubt in my mind that whatever she writes will be amazing. Magnet, there is no doubt in my mind that whatever they do is going to be amazing and important. The MotherTongue Project, Sara [Matchett], where I started actually.
My first encounter of your work was seeing you host the ASSITEJ festival opening and I was so drawn to your naturally bubbly personality. After all these years of being in this industry, how are you still able to maintain that positive attitude?
I just feel like if you are not happy with what you do, stop. Find something you are happy with. I could sit around and mope about how difficult it is but it’s a choice that I make every day. I chose this. There are problem, and I am not shy about talking about the problems and the issues, but I am still choosing it. At some point, if you are not happy, leave. For me, it’s that simple and when you are there, you can’t bitch and moan about it all the time and when you are bitching about it, what are you doing to make it better? I just don’t believe that one should stay if you are not happy. But it’s also so funny because most people think I’m dark or I’m hard to approach. I get that a lot. I think it’s because of the kind of work that I do or most of the work that I’ve done where I play these women with so much weight and such dark stories. When I start working with people they are like, “I didn’t know you were such an idiot.” Not in a bad way. People always have this notion of me because of the work that I do and the roles that I portray.
I wanted to touch on what you mentioned about being outspoken within this industry. How are you able to navigate staying true to yourself?
I always say, especially when I work with young people, ultimately, in this kind of industry, we are each other’s references. It doesn’t matter what you say outside. What matters is how you react and act around the people who you are working with because you will have people saying, “I want to do this. I want to change that.” But when you get to meet them and work with them, you realise that is just for show. They are not living what they are saying. For me, it’s important to be truthful and to be honest with people. We don’t have to agree to work with each other, as long as we know where we all stand with each other about certain things. We do not have to agree at all. I guess I’ve managed to stay alive in this industry because ultimately people know when they agree or disagree with me, it comes from the right place or a truthful place and that is all one can do.
In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?
Earlier on in my career, I asked myself a question, “What kind of an actor do I want to be?” Do I want to be the actor who would say it’s ok to just play stereotypic roles? People forget that we only got our freedom in 1994. Before that, especially for people of colour, it was a very tricky situation to really speak out and say, “This is not me. You can’t portray me like that.” When I was in drama school in ’98, I realised that there aren’t that many plays written for black women, almost nonexistent, written by black women. You would get a script and you are written but you are written always from someone else’s lens. Then I found out, and I keep using this quote, we are constantly asked to play communities as opposed to individuals. I would have an argument with a director and say, “You need to understand that black women can be complex.” My mother is not the same as, lets say, Warona’s mother. They deal with things differently. I am interested in finding the complexities. I could say that also about how white men write about white women [or] just about how men write about women in general. I made a conscious decision when I am playing a role, I will make sure that I find an individual. I need to base it on someone who exists because within that, then I am able to go deep and find that character and then bring that to work. Otherwise I am just playing every women. There is no such thing.
What is something that you’ve found to be your biggest challenge?
As much as I think it’s a good thing for one to be outspoken, sometimes it could be a challenge because it can alienate me from other people and then there is a misconception about who I am, “She talks to much. She has too many opinions.” Finding the balance is a challenge. Sometimes I get passionate and it happens a lot with black women, when we are passionate, we are perceived as angry. English is not my first language. It takes a lot for me to express. It just goes and it looks and feels like I am angry when I am not. I’m translating as I am speaking to you now and I feel like people don’t understand that and it becomes a challenge.
I’ve never thought to ask this question before about having to be a bilingual actress because there aren’t enough roles to only work in a single language. What has that experience been like?
And I’ll tell you this, at drama school because there wasn’t enough material for black women, I [had] never performed in Xhosa. Then I left drama school and I started working Mandla Mbothwe at Magnet theatre and I was forced to perform in my own language and I had to relearn how to act because the language comes from a different part of the body. I remember thinking, “Why is this so hard? This should be easier. This is what I’ve always wanted, to perform in my own language.” It was hard because I wasn’t used to it. I had to work hard and I would be in the rehearsal room with younger performers and I would watch how easy it is for them to just get into it and get into the language. I struggled. I had to work extra hard. I didn’t grow up in the Eastern Cape. I grew up in the Western Cape and my mom is half Zulu so there is already a strange accent that I have, that I get told all the time, with my Xhosa. I have to work extra hard. But we forget that we communicate more with our bodies than we do vocally. It was just a shock for me because as a proud Xhosa person, I had to work so much harder. It was strange. So for me, it’s important for institutions to allow people to speak in their mother tongues.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
There are so many. Sara Matchett is the person who took me into her company after I had just left drama school. She taught me the importance of story. After MotherTongue, I went to Magnet and I had no idea how we carry our stories in our bodies. I’ll forever be grateful to Jennie Reznek for making me understand the story that I carry to the process and understanding my own body and how I sometimes need to get out of my own body to embody someone else’s story. Yvonne Banning, bless her soul. She was my teacher at drama school and I think she gave me the strength to say, “It’s ok to be different.” It’s ok to say, “Fuck off” or “I don’t agree.” Warona Seane, those conversations that one has with a friend and someone who you admire who [will] question you and always teaches you how to question everything, even me questioning myself. The bravery that Chuma Sopotela has is phenomenal and how she is not scared of anything. Obviously Nadia [Davids]. I get excited about people’s writing because I don’t think I’m a good writer. Khutjo Green! I am literally stalking her and I will make sure I do a project with her by the end of this year because I think she is a phenomenal director. She is not just a phenomenal actor but a director as well. Jennifer Steyn! I feel like we don’t have enough intergenerational shows. I’ve worked with Jennifer on two projects and it’s amazing how giving she is. Working with her is like a masterclass because she is so generous with information and a generous performer as well. Koleka Putuma literally broke the stereotype about poetry. The fact that she said, “I love poetry and poetry can sell” and she did it her own way. The guts to do it your own way. I am also inspired by women like Denise Newman, Ukhona Mlandu [and] Lara Bye that gracefully share their knowledge. Mamela Nyamza, Jemma Kahn, Rehane Abrahams, Thenx ladies, Quanita Adams, Pamela Nomvete, I thank you for keep reminding me the importance of our voices as women through your work, and also young and wise theatre-makers; Thando Mangcu, Ameera Conrad, Buhle Ngaba, Nwabisa Plaatjie. Theatre is in safe hands.