Mncedisi Shabangu, theatre’s all-round master

The multi-award-winning actor cannot wait to perform in the William Kentridge epic The Head & The Load, but meanwhile the multidimensional artist continues to awe while honing his craft on television.

These days, Mncedisi Shabangu appears with sterling panache in the television drama series Rhythm City. He was introduced to viewers of the popular series, now in its 13th season, as businessman Khulekani Ngobese early in 2019. Within a year, this past April, Shabangu bagged the honour of Best Supporting Actor in a TV Soap at the South African Film and Television Awards.

He portrays a married, heterosexual man in a secret relationship with a queer character, Jamaica, who is played by Mzamo Gcabashe. For the longest time, South African television has produced contrived and rigid accounts of people identifying as gay. The writing, characters and their portrayal have all too often failed to mirror gay society and represent its varied realities. But Rhythm City’s creative team has cut the clichéd queer characterisations in their writing and performance of this storyline.

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Shabangu’s thoughtful approach to the role shows a master at work and does not surprise his peers in the industry who have observed his talents as an actor, theatre director and playwright over the years. After all, Shabangu has paid his dues. His oeuvre of work is an inspiring and diverse catalogue that spans television, film and theatre. His acting career began in earnest in 1995, when he started formal training at The Market Theatre Laboratory, graduating at the end of 1996. 

This was during an important time politically, as the restrictions imposed on black acting practitioners began to change and new opportunities appeared. “It was an interesting and eye-opening time indeed then,” says Shabangu. “I recall that in my class then we were an ambitious bunch, full of zeal, and it took an equally zestful teacher in the form of the late actor and director Ramolao Makhene to offer us direction.”

Today, many in that cohort occupy roles in premium South African television soaps – Harriet Manamela stars in Skeem Saam while Ronnie Nyakale and Mpho Molepo feature in Generations

Home is where the theatre is 

Prior to Rhythm City, Shabangu had been best known among television audiences for his portrayal of Skhumbuzo in the SABC drama series The Lab. But it is the theatre that has remained his first love and where he has done most of his award-winning work. He says he is fortunate to have had access to theatre titans such as John Kani, Lara Foot and James Ngcobo, which is why he does workshops in community theatres around the country. 

“I am more at home in the theatre, I suppose, possibly because that is where I started. That is even before my training at The Market Theatre, because as far back as 1990 I have been doing plays and other acts through community theatre in Kanyamazane in Mpumalanga, where I grew up,” he reflects. “It is something I still do, where I go back to my community to do performances and offer mentorship each year. There is a programme I have run there from 1997 to date.”

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In 1998, Shabangu wrote and directed the play Vuka Machel. A burlesque, it tells the story of Samora Machel waking up from the dead to find his wife married to Nelson Mandela and the Mozambique that he once led in utter shambles. The play was performed in theatres around the country as well in Zimbabwe, eSwatini and Sweden, and won Shabangu the FNB Vita Award for Best Director in 2003. Its most recent performance was at the Ramolao Makhene Theatre in January and February this year.

Shabangu had also won an FNB Vita Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in 2000, for Call Us Crazy, and the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 2002. He would later receive KKNK and Fleur du Cap best actor awards for his role in Foot’s devastating play about sexual violence, Tshepang, which is based on the brutal rape of a nine-month-old baby. 

Molepo, a long-term friend and industry colleague, describes Shabangu as “an actor’s actor” and says he is a mentor to everyone, the young and the old. “I refer to him as a brother,” he says. “You could take months without seeing him, say, when he is travelling overseas working, and besides the calling he does to check up on you, he would come back to seek you, essentially wanting to know if you are just simply doing fine. It’s not only up-and-coming actors and actresses he provides a kind of mentorship to, you see?”

A unique approach

Though Shabangu strictly applies the techniques of his craft to all his work, he does not take a linear approach. Last year he invited Gcabashe, who plays his Rhythm City lover Jamaica, to view the lyrical play Tswalo at the Market Theatre with him. Afterwards they spent time critiquing the play, unpacking the lines of poetry, their physical and emotional delivery and the performance in general. The two were essentially working. It was an astute move by Shabangu, who wanted to use the exercise to enhance their on-screen performance and relationship in the television series.

Shabangu’s latest theatre acting project, William Kentridge’s The Head & The Load, was due for a limited run at the Joburg Theatre in May, but it has been postponed to September 2021 because of the Covid-19 lockdown. Featuring 38 performers, this large-scale work explores Africa’s role in World War I. It first opened at the Tate Modern in London in 2018 and went on to sell out theatres in Amsterdam, Düsseldorf and New York. 

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Meanwhile, at the end of August, Shabangu joined Sanelisiwe Yekani and Khulu Skenjana on stage at the Joburg Theatre in Zakes Mda’s play Dead End, which was written in 1966. It was not only a delight for hungry theatregoers, but also a way to gauge how theatre logistics could run during this period of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Shabangu beams with delight at the thought of The Head & The Load finally being on stage at home. “It is a stellar cast, man, and it straddles artistic genres. There is the potent [actor] Hamilton Dlamini in it and another powerhouse in dancer Gregory Maqoma. Besides that, all the shows were almost sold [out] before the lockdown was announced.”

He adds: “Part of the performance contract is the extensive outreach programme that we have to do. And that just gives me sheer joy.”

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