A Conversation with Chuma Sopotela

Chuma Sopotela is a multi-award-winning actor, director, choreographer and performance artist. She has recently been named as the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art. Her stage credits include Karoo Moose for which she received the 2007 Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for Best Actress, Waiting for the BarbariansU nyamo alunampumlo and Mamela Nyamza’s Rock to the CoreWe sat down with her to discuss her career, being named the Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art and her upcoming production for the National Arts Festival, Indlulamthi.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

My mom. She was a teacher. She used to come home and reenact her classes with the kids. I grew up with a lot of play around. My father was also dramatic. I remember one day, I went with him to the supermarket. He was pushing a trolley and he bumped another lady’s trolley and milk fell off the trolley and it spilled everywhere. Because he didn’t want to pay for the milk, he started pretending as if he couldn’t speak. He started speaking with his hands and the security guard felt sorry for him and he said, “No, no. Go.” I think my parents are artists but because of the time they didn’t explore the field of the arts. I come from a family of artists. My sister is a fashion designer, my brother works in marketing. I think my parents were my inspiration but specifically my mother because she loved telling stories.

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Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

In terms of being a physical theatre artist, was that something that you realised you wanted to go into quite early on?

When I first started acting and performing, it was in front of my mirror when I was a child. I would come home every Friday evening and I would be found in my room in front of the mirror and I was doing something that I called ‘moving sculptures.’ I didn’t know what it was, that’s why I named it because I would start from a pose and start moving and I would do that for hours and hours until my mother would call me to come and eat supper. I would come out and I would be sweating because I was dancing this whole time. I think, for me, the body is my painting. That is the way that I tell stories and I think that it’s a universal language because people who are blessed with sight can interpret what they see in a way that they want to and those who can’t [see], can touch the body and then they can have a different experience all together.

You studied at UCT where they do tend to focus on physical theatre…

Yes. We had movement classes which I was very good at by the way.

I’m sure!

I won an award for movement and it was my favourite class. Jennie Reznek was one of the teachers that was there. Ruth Levin taught us yoga. I was not a fan of yoga. That is when I was introduced to the term officially at school. At that time, there was a lot of physical theatre with the company from Grahamstown, First Physical, but then there are not a lot of companies now that just do physical theatre. Most of the time it’s dance or it’s theatre. There was a lot of physical theatre in that time and I remember that when I was doing drama in Khayelitsha with my group, that is what we were specialising in.

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Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

Straight from school you booked your first professional gig which was Lara Foot’s Karoo Moose

I did. Apparently I met Lara in my second year. Second year was a tough year and apparently she asked me if I could come and do a reading for her for Karoo Moose and I never went. She said that it seemed like I didn’t even notice her. This was when I met her two years later and I auditioned for Karoo Moose, she’s like, “I wrote this thing for you and you didn’t notice me!” And I was like, “Yeah but I was a second year drama school student.”

What was it like to find such a fantastic piece straight out of drama school and go on to be awarded all these accolades for your work?

I didn’t believe them. With the first Fleur du Cap award I was like, “That’s not for me. That’s for you guys.” I didn’t believe it. I was like, “Ok, they need to give it to some black person.” So I was like, “Thank you.” I think it’s only now, we did Karoo Moose again nine years later and when I got the KKNK [Kanna award], I was like, “Yes, I worked hard for that.” It’s only now that I believe and I feel like I’ve worked on my craft and that I’m working towards something with every job that I do. I’m more appreciative of the awards now because I feel like it’s well deserved.

What was it like to step back into that piece nine years later? I also wanted to ask you about juggling a pregnancy while in the midst of such a demanding role. 

That person is now one and a half! It was strange but I was grateful that it happened because it gave me another chance to look into that character again with all the skills I had acquired and all the experience I had acquired in the years that I’ve been practicing. I was looking forward to it very much. With the pregnancy, I knew I would be able to do it. I just knew it. I almost believe that everything happens in its time, so I knew that if I’m pregnant and I have to do Karoo Moose, it must be done. I didn’t doubt that I would be able to do it at all. I had no doubt in my head that I would be able to pull it through.

Congratulations on being named the Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art! 

That’s how my biography starts now, “Standard Bank Young Artist…” Read no more!

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Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

How are you feeling about it? Is it something you expected?

No. Because how would you win a Standard Bank Young Artist as an actress? That is what I’m mostly known for. There’s no Standard Bank Artist for actors. It’s for Theatre-makers. They mostly give it to directors or something like that. I never expected that I would ever win a Standard Bank Young Artist. I wanted one badly! Who doesn’t? I remember, I wrote it down somewhere in my goals when I used to do goals but I thought it would come later because I had only started directing. I started doing performance art in 2007 when I did a collaboration with Mwenya Kabwe and Kemang Wa Lehulere. We did a show called U nyamo alunampumlo for the Spier Contemporary. We were one of the winners. I had always wanted to be part of the bigger spectrum of art, not just theatre. I’ve always wanted to do more. When I started doing performance art, I found that it’s a way that is helping me to express myself and to make my own art. I didn’t think that I would win a Standard Bank Young Artist for that. I didn’t think it would happen but I’m glad it has because now I can do a project with my friends and not look for my funding, although I am still looking for funding because I have to help my budget. It’s great. At the time I was like, “I’m a Standard Bank Young Artist!” But I did not expect the attention that it brings because that is all people talk about now. I didn’t know that this is what happens to you when you are a Standard Bank Young Artist. It becomes ‘the thing.’ It’s a great way to start a conversation and its also a booster. It is something that [makes me feel] more confident in how I feel and it’s also an opportunity to dream bigger because you’ve got a budget.

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Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

What can you tell us about the upcoming piece that you are creating for the National Arts Festival?

A few years ago, I was working with a friend of mine. I told him this dream that I had about doing a show with the kids in Grahamstown in the streets. I call them the white-faced kids. A few years ago, I was part of something called The People’s Education where we did a performance in the streets of Grahamstown and I enacted sort of like a thanksgiving. I don’t know how you say it in English but it’s something where you want something to be recognised. I painted myself white and was half naked. I don’t like clothes much, but it was for those kids who go there year after year and they busk. This year I am doing a performance piece with them. We are still sourcing where we are going to find them and I’m also bringing a friend of mine from Palestine, Ahmed Tobasi, because we want to explore and speak more about the situation in Palestine [and] a friend of mine, Davor Sanvincenti, from Croatia who I met as part of this like collaborative space, we call it One Space where people from all of the world met and we went to Palestine, Lisbon, Kinshasa and Durban. I met all of them as part of this shared space. It’s going to be me, Ahmed Tobasi, Davor Sanvincenti, Borut [Bučinel] who is from Slovenia and Lulamile Bongo Nikani who is from King William’s Town. That is the team and we are going to be working in Grahamstown with the kids and we’ll see what comes out. It’s called Indlulamthi. That is what we call a giraffe in isiXhosa but in direct translation it means ‘the ones who are taller than the trees.’ For me, those are the kids. We want the kids to have that feeling that they are beyond any situation. I’m not saying that they are in any bad situation but you want every child to feel like anything is possible. The reason why I’m bringing these international people is because I want them to also know that the world is bigger than Grahamstown. Go beyond the borders. We want that feeling. I want to create that feeling of no boundaries, no stopping. 

You are creating this piece in collaboration but also directing and performing in it. As a performer, how do you go about directing yourself?

I’m trying not to perform in it. What I’ve done in the past, with my solo performances, I usually use a camera to rehearse. That was when I was first starting off but later on I stopped and I just trusted my instincts. While I’m in it, it’s like a double awareness, an awareness of the outside and an awareness of being inside out. It’s an exploration that I’m doing as research. I want to do it as part of my masters at UCT. An exploration of the unknowing performer, the idea that the performer has an internal director and that is what they use in creating a performance. I am trying to write about that methodology of performance. I’m going into the space next week. I’m the first one to arrive. That is when I’m navigating the space and doing what I usually do. In my solo performances, I almost meditate in the space. That is what I’m going to be doing in the first couple of days being in Grahamstown. It’s like a prayer, envisioning what the shrine is going to be. I call my performance spaces shrines because performance, for me, is a prayer. That is what I’ll be doing in the first weeks and then people will join me as they come and we start envisioning it together. Then, by the time that we come up with a performance, I’m sure I’ll place everyone and then I’ll navigate, which is a role that I play a lot even in other people’s performances. It’s like the thread that puts everything together. I’ll be more of that role in this one.

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Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

Last year, I saw you in Rock to the Core, how do you go about sourcing such awesome projects to be part of?

I have no clue but I am grateful for it. Just to have to think about it, I have worked with some of the best artists in this country. In November I did a show with Kemang Wa Lehulere, a friend of mine who is a visual artist, one of the biggest in the country and we won an award in New York for that performance that we did. After that I had to rush off, get onto a plane and meet Mamela [Nyamza] in Germany to do Rock to the Core. It is just amazing. It’s a blessing to be able to say that I’m part of this family of artists who support each other. Mamela is also my mentor. I call her and I Facebook message her when I’m not feeling so good. She has given me strength in times where I didn’t feel so good and she was there when I was pregnant and with a child. As an artist, how are you going to make it? You have doubts but she is one of those people [who says], “You’ll do it.” I also work with Buhlebezwe Siwani who is also a visual artist and amazing. We have the most amazing artists in this country who are just such individuals and the work that they do is profound.

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Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

As someone who had their work recognised right from the beginning, how have you as an artist managed to stay true to yourself?

It wasn’t easy. We have fights with people. You have to fight with people and at that time, it’s not like a fight, it’s who you are and you don’t compromise. I’m not saying that I’ve never not compromised because sometimes you just have to put bread on the table but those were the learning curves. When I started off my career, I always said that I want to work with as many directors as I can so I can learn how to make work. I always knew that I didn’t just want to act or to just be an actress. I never wanted to just be directed. I also wanted to be outside and able to create my own work. I think because I had that from the onset, I knew that I was not just going to be an actor because I had a goal. I think that helped me a lot because I knew then that I always had to be on the lookout on where to go next.

What are your hopes for the next chapter of your career?

Big things! I want to create big things now and this is the first one. The Standard Bank Young Artist one is the first big one. I hope to go into Film as well. I want to learn how to make beautiful films. I want to do my masters and I want to be a doctor because I promised my mother that I would be a doctor. I was supposed to do medicine but I lied to her. I said I applied for medicine and I didn’t. I have to make up to my mother so I have to have a PhD, also for some stability because then you can teach. I love teaching, just like my mother. Hopefully in the next couple of years, I’ll be able to teach and while I’m teaching make big things, massive installations and work with friends from all over the world. I just love people.

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Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

Buhlebezwe Siwani [and] Mamela Nyamza. They are my friends. There are lots though. I’d say those two now because they challenge me. They are my friends but they really challenge me to be better at what I do.


Indlulamthi will run at The National Arts Festival from July 4th – 6th. For tickets, click here.

Special thanks to Jesse Kramer, Christine Skinner, Skye RussellThe Gin Bar and Kenan Tatt.

All photos were taken by Jesse Kramer on May 18th 2018 at The Gin Bar.

Sarafina Magazine and Jesse Kramer maintain copyright over all images. For usage or inquires, please contact us.

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