A Conversation with Siphokazi Jonas

Siphokazi Jonas is a writer, performer, and poet. She has written, produced, and performed in four one-woman poetry shows. She wrote, produced and performed in a multi-genre theatre production, Around the Fire, which was staged at the 2016 Artscape Spiritual Festival and the 2018 Women’s Humanity Festival. Her stage work includes Natalia da Rocha’s Adam Small Festival and Mandla Mbothwe’s Oratorio of a Forgotten Youth. In 2018, she presented her directorial debut, The Widow, as part of Artscape’s New Voices programme. The production returns to the Artscape Arena at the beginning of August 2019. Jonas has been a featured act at numerous poetry sessions in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Her experience with spoken word has led to multiple invitations to judge poetry slam competitions in Cape Town and Johannesburg. She has also performed with renowned musicians including, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, Freshlyground, Pops Mohamed, Dizu Plaatjies and Dave Reynolds. Jonas made history in 2016 as the first African poet to perform at Rhetoric in California. In February 2019 she was also a headline act on the first ever South African national poetry tour, the Fresh Poetry TourShe was crowned as the first Cape Town Ultimate Slam Champion in 2015 and was the runner-up in the prestigious 2016 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award, coming second out of 600 poems submitted nationally. Her work was longlisted again in 2017.

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

There was no one in my personal life who pursued the arts. My mom is a teacher, my father was a policeman. They are both retired now. They were quite musical. My mom used to conduct the choir, my dad was in the choir so there was that background around music but there was no fulltime pursuit. I can only say that it was through watching television that I was drawn to performance as a whole. The desire to pursue the arts probably hit me hardest in high school. In Grade 8, I gave up trying to be a doctor. I was in eisteddfods, that was probably a clue but I always knew it wasn’t an option for me to pursue performance because culturally it’s not really something that is done. You want to go down a path that will bring in a steady income. I struggled to actually know what to apply to when it came to varsity. A gentleman we knew from church had studied biotechnology and he was telling me about it. I thought, “It’s an alternative, I guess.” I applied for biotechnology at UCT, I got in and then, for the first time in my life, failed. I completely failed first year. At the end of that year, we sat down and realised this wasn’t working. It took some convincing but then my parents said ok [to] theatre and performance at UCT, even at the time I thought, “I don’t see job prospects, so I don’t want to tie myself down to a degree that doesn’t have options.” I went for a BA drama and English and that was the first step. By then, I had also been introduced to spoken word poetry. I came to that crossroads again in 2009 where I had to decide between doing a masters in drama or in English. Again, the question of job prospects. I decided to do my MA in English because it felt like I’d most likely get a job that way. In 2015, Natalia da Rocha was doing the Adam Small Festival and she asked if I was interested and she cast me in that. That’s when I made my way back into the theatre.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

What is your earliest memory of writing?

At 14. That’s when I started writing poetry. That is my earliest memory. But I did write a play in primary school in blue pen. It was like four or five pages long. What most people don’t realise is that theatre came before poetry. Poetry seemed the safer route in some way but theatre predates poetry for me by years. I wrote my first play, I don’t remember what it was about but I kept it throughout high school and I guess when I moved from Queenstown to come and study here, I lost it. I just remember it was written in blue pen and was about four or five pages long with dialogue and everything.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

Do you have a specific process when you sit down to write?

It depends on what inspires it. Sometimes it’s an ongoing interest in a particular theme or event or issue or whatever interests me. It may be something that has been building up and I read up on it and I speak to people about it until I find an angle or sit down and kind of think about it from different points. I think my two main entry points are around language or people. If I start with people, for example, it will be the characters. When I wrote Around the Fire, which started in 2015 as a poetry project and then turned into a play by 2018, I had interviewed three women here in Cape Town and I just put the [recorder] on and said, “Tell me about your life.” I started writing poetry around that. I was developing on the basis of character and then it just exploded into what would later be a 90-minute production. That is around character and that can start with everyday relationships or people I find interesting in the media or in pop culture or whatever. The other entry point is language. I find myself to be quite obsessed with language. If there is a word that is really interesting to me or an idea that is really interesting, I will go through a thesaurus and find all of the different ways in which you can look at that idea or unpack the history of the word and all its connotations and denotations and just obsess around the word itself. That can build something out of that. Whether it’s in poetry or in writing theatre, language and character are my two main entry points into putting pen to paper.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

I’ve been trying to tell myself that there’s no such thing and sometimes I try and write myself out of it by writing all the bad stuff that is not valuable so that you have to to get to the good stuff. What has been happening, sometimes when I am busy doing theatre or stage work, I am not even writing poetry. Then I’m ok with that. That has happened for the last year and a half where I have not been writing poetry, but now I’m back at it especially because I have to get a book out. I have to finish my manuscript. It’s a poetry collection. Now it’s just back but I think when it’s a commission piece, for example, I will just do the research on whatever it is that I’m supposed to write about. I don’t wait for inspiration. I would never survive if I did. If it is an organisation, for example, I’ll research around that organisation and that theme. I’ll marry it up to the context, what they are about, what I need to be saying. I have those kinds of tricks and little writing prompts that I create for myself or that I find online. I use writing prompts a lot, that helps. I wouldn’t say writer’s block isn’t something that I consider important enough. It just means that the quality of the work may not be great but I spend a lot of time, if I feel depleted, to kind of replenish by reading, by watching theatre, by travelling. I try and live life to give me something to talk about.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

The Widow marks your directorial debut. What was it that attracted you to this project?

I was involved with the New Voices Programme last year and Dr Nomfundo Mali brought the concept to Artscape. I was assigned to that but it was a collection of short stories of widow’s testimonies. They are real widows in Cape Town. It’s a book of about 20 or so stories. It’s about three or four pages for each widow and they just tell who they are, how the person passed and how they’ve been dealing with that. We workshopped the script and we spent about two or three weeks working on that. We got into the space and just workshopped day in and day out and then started writing. Eventually, we had a script. Obviously, because of the time frame, from that first moment of introducing the concept to the actors, to performing, that period was about four or five weeks. I felt like we were too close to it to actually see the gaps and the full picture. When the call came for the Women’s Festival, I sent a proposal that I’d like to bring the production back and then spend some time developing the script now that I had distance. I think we’ve done a good job. That is how it came about. 

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

How have you noticed the piece has evolved since it’s first incarnation?

We had quite a bit of movement in the production which was part of our workshopping because we were thinking about the body and language and finding the language for grief, for articulating grieving and all of that. What came out of that was a lot of the physical aspects but I’ve moved away from that in this one. It’s about the story. It’s about the text. We don’t have that movement element in there anymore. But it was also kind of refining the parameters. The place of it wasn’t as clear last time. It felt abstract in some ways. Some of the widows actually came to see the production and to be honest, I felt a sense that they were grateful and they said it’s good to see their stories but I felt they hadn’t quite accessed or understood everything. It wasn’t as clear as it could have been. This time I wanted to create a production that would be simple, that would be clear to understand and really articulate its concerns so that if they walked in, they would walk out feeling like their story had been told. That it wasn’t about us in our desires to dazzle and be abstract. I just wanted something that someone who is a widow could walk in and sit through and feel that is something of their life that they are seeing on stage. I narrowed down the parameters and place. It’s a group therapy session, so during that hour, you’ll be able to witness that process through them retelling their stories. I think there is also a greater connection because we had set it up primarily as monologues but this time there is a greater interaction between the women as they help each other navigate this process.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

How has your writing and performing career lent itself to your directing?

To be honest, at first, I was nervous because I felt out of my depth. That happens with a debut offering but I soon got to understand that it’s just another form of storytelling. The biggest difference for me is going from someone who works so much with words, to then move to the visual and actually thinking about images and communicating through imagery. That was probably the biggest learning curve for me in terms of, “How do we translate these things into the space?” When I get directed, it’s usually someone else’s responsibility. It’s kind of the difference of being employed vs being a freelancer or an entrepreneur. You start having to think about things that you wouldn’t when you are the one that is being directed when you are the performer. But it’s also opened up a lot around thinking of all the different elements that come into making and telling the story. I’ve just told myself that this is another form of storytelling. That is the process that I’m guiding. When you start thinking about music and light and the blocking, “How are all of these driving the story forward?” It’s just helping us to tell a story. I think this time around especially, it’s just been about the story. That is something that I recognize as a writer. That is where a lot of the parallels starred coming in. I think directing has started feeding back into my writing because you participate differently in the storytelling but it’s kind of given me a stronger sense of behind the scenes and all the elements that come into it. I’m writing now with an understanding of, “What would a director want to be able to access?” As a poet, we get very obscure and I’m starting to understand that difference for when you are really writing for the stage. Sometimes when we are writing, you are just writing for the page and then the director is like, “What is this supposed to mean?” It doesn’t always translate easily. It’s given me a lot of insight and I can’t wait to do it again. I really want to pursue this. I enjoy it so much. And actually collaborating with the actors. One of the things they’ve said is that what’s helpful in terms of my approach is that it helps that I understand their process, so we are able to really collaborate and I think that enhances how the story is told and how they see it.

In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?

I think it’s around representation. Just being able to bring another somewhat marginalised narrative into the center, not always intentionally. I took a chance to do this. It’s been a struggle. It’s never easy but starting to make a success of it has allowed for others to be able to see it as a possibility for themselves. My parents are also starting to get it. When I started out, it was this foreign thing and it felt like, “What are you doing? Are you even using your masters?” It’s changed narratives just by existing. There are a lot of people who are younger than me who feel, I hate to use the word inspired because it’s something more than that, it’s bringing the imagined into the realm of the possibility. It’s important for me to succeed. 

What advice would you have for aspiring poets?

Put work behind the dream. It’s wonderful to dream. I think dreaming is an act of protest sometimes and an act of resistance but you have to put work behind it. You have to put in the hours. You have to go to the classes if there are classes and workshops on offer. You have to get the training wherever you can. You have to interact with your peers and your colleagues and not just be focused on poetry. There are so many art forms that could work collaboratively. Put work behind the dream otherwise it will only ever be that. I believe in hard work. I’ve been trying to work hard for over a decade but if I didn’t, I’d still be dreaming. 

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

Is there anything still on your career bucket list?

Once I’ve gone down this path and worked at it, I’d like to write musicals. My dream is to one day stage something on Broadway. Musicals are something that I am working towards because I have always loved the relationship between music and script. I am so obsessed with the idea of not just seeing music as an accompaniment/backtrack but actually combining the creative process so that there is synergy with how those two come to life. I’m working on a book, so that is going to be off the list if I get my act together. I guess, because I love education so much, a lot of what I’m doing is to keep teaching and educating in the arts. I don’t really have items more than what I’d like to achieve holistically where just the idea of a career in the arts is an option. 

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

Natalia da Rocha, Thoko Ntshinga, Flo Masebe, Masasa Mbangeni, Gabeba Baderoon, Malika Ndlovu and Khadija Heeger.

The Widow will run at the Artscape Arena from August 6th until the 10th. For tickets, click here.

You can follow Siphokazi on Instagram, Twitter and via her official Facebook page.

All photos were taken on July 31st 2019 at Artscape.

Sarafina Magazine maintains copyrights of all images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.


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