Thuso Mbedu is outliving her dreams

The actress, who makes her Hollywood debut in Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, has been preparing for this role since her school days.

Thuso Mbedu is fidgeting. She is tugging at her long fingers. Her eyes narrow in deep concentration. 

“Okay Thuso, try that again,” says her matric drama teacher, Ms Bydawell. 

“Um,” she starts, “something doesn’t make sense.” 

Mbedu is a top drama student at Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School in KwaZulu-Natal. She has rehearsed, practised and has all her lines down. But something is amiss. She is not connecting with the emotional arc of her character. 

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“I mean, why would she…” her voice trails off. 

“Maybe just still yourself. Try to not gesticulate so much,” interjects another student. 

She takes the note, at first, but something is still off. The character does not need stillness. She knows that. She is certain.

“Okay, let’s take it from the top,” says Mbedu, as she resigns herself to the whims of her character. Resigned to the fact that if she falters, her character will intervene. 

Older Mbedu, newer world

Eleven years later, Mbedu sits in front of her laptop in her Los Angeles apartment. The world has changed dramatically since her high school days, replaced now with unending screens, sanitisers and masks. 

Mbedu’s world has changed dramatically, too. The youthful 29-year-old woman on the screen bears no resemblance to that 18-year-old girl. Yet she still looks the same, and still prioritises comfort in her style. 

Her accent now has an American twang, no doubt because her environment calls for it. But if you listen long enough, her Zulu humour sneaks through.

27 August 2019: Mbedu says it was very important for her to track her character Cora’s vocal journey as well. (Photograph by Kyle Kaplan/ Amazon Studios)

“Sho skhokho!” greets Mbedu as the sound on the video call kicks in. This is a ridiculous greeting, a mix of playful verbiage and slang. It defies translation: the cosmic, poetic and pithy inferences in isiZulu sit far beyond the banality of the English language. 

This is the sense one gets from speaking to Mbedu. She is unbelievably rooted in the knowledge of her African ancestry and in doing so, is able to truly make sense of the globalised village she now stars in as she makes her international debut as Cora Randall, the lead character in Barry Jenkins’ series adaptation of Colson White’s novel The Underground Railroad.

Connections across continents 

Four poignant lines stand out in African-American poet Countee Cullen’s Heritage:

One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

The title of South African feminist scholar Pumla Dineo Gqola’s book, What is Slavery To Me: Postcolonial/Slave Memory in Post- Apartheid South Africa, is adapted from Cullen’s prolific text. 

“In that poem, Cullen seeks to make sense of the conflicting ways in which Africa has relevance for him as an African American, descended from enslaved Americans,” Gqola writes. 

“The poem’s speaker,” she continues, “makes sense of the various ways in which Africa remains both important to his politico-psychic identity and elusive mythologised site.”

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For Gqola, it is important to understand “how the languaging of historic slavery in at once intimate and overtly political ways functions in the post-apartheid imagination”. 

In the twinning of Whitehead’s fictional tale of the Underground Railroad and Jenkins’ masterful cinematic retelling of the same story with a South African lead, we may find ways to further think through the global links that connected the brutality of chattel slavery to the character of a young woman from South Africa. 

Colson’s reification of enslaved persons is horrifying. The first page opens to an account of Cora’s grandmother’s enslavement. Through Mbedu’s portrayal, the audience witnesses the generational trauma that sits on her shoulders and shifts her centre of gravity. 

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“Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between slaver for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase, eighty-eight human souls for the sixty crates of rum and gunpowder, the price arrived upon after haggling in Coast English,” Whitehead writes.

Later, he continues, “the captain staggered in his purchases, rather than find himself with cargo of singular culture and disposition. Who knew what brand of mutiny his captives might cook up if they shared a common tongue.” 

This is a harrowing insight into the psychology of slave masters. Even though Whitehead’s book is a fictional account, it is rooted in truth. As he says in a 2016 interview with audiobook service Audible, he did not stick to the facts when writing this story, but stuck to the truth.

Truth tellers 

Mbedu and Jenkins are also deeply invested in the narration of truth. Their remake of Whitehead’s fiction feels like a kind of cinematic magic-realism. 

As Mbedu’s portrayal of Cora moves between her reality and her dreams – under the guidance of Jenkins’ extraordinary directorial eye – the audience is left to reckon with the psychic horrors of enslavement and the ways in which the capitalist amassment of human lives was a unique travesty for enslaved women. 

Jenkins’ cinematic intervention with this series eschews the cliché and orthodoxy often associated with stories of enslavement. Each frame and each scene tugs at our humanity and brings us closer to the divine and what English art critic John Berger calls the “living voice”. 

Voice is a huge preoccupation for Mbedu. Tracking the vocal journey of her character is part of how she honed her craftsmanship for this role.  

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“You know how history is taught in general. They sort of just glaze over it, make some mentions of it, so some of us who aren’t inspired to learn more don’t know any more than what we have observed on screen through a specific white male gaze or lens. So that’s all we know,” starts Mbedu.

“So, when I started my preparation process for the character, I realised that there was a lot that I had to unlearn in order to learn the actual truth of the environment and the circumstance that the Black body found itself in.” 

“What really helped me was, very early on, Barry sent me material to read and material to listen to,” she explains. 

“It was audio testimonials of former enslaved people. So these were now people in their 90s … The one thing that I heard, and this is something that I discussed with my dialect coach, was that there was a 90-year-old speaking [on the tapes] but she sounded 16.” 

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It’s a powerful insight that animates the vocal expressions of her enactment of Cora. 

Mbedu continues: “That took me back to what we did in physical theatre at Wits [University]. One of our courses was voice, movement therapy, where we explored the vocal journey of each person and each individual, which I could then apply to different characters because our voices also trace or track our trauma and different experiences. So for me it became very important to track Cora’s vocal journey as well.” 

In the series, like when she was that 18-year-old drama student, Mbedu relies on her physicality in the absence of long, storied monologues. Her facial expressions and the way she contorts her body to assume the consciousness of an enslaved woman are masterful. 

When she does speak, her words seem laboured. Cora, as Whitehead explains in the book, is traumatised and emotionally closed off in a world that seeks to dehumanise each day. 

Underbelly of the American empire

Just before his 2016 National Book Award nomination, Audible sat down with Whitehead to discuss his soon-to-be-acclaimed novel. 

“I was sitting on my couch and maybe heard a reference to the Underground Railroad on the TV … When you are a kid, that’s how you envision it. You envision a literal underground railroad, like a subway,” he says. 

“What if it actually was an underground railroad?” he asks rhetorically. “Then I came up with a Gulliver’s travels-type structure where each state the protagonist goes through would be a state of American possibility.”

In the series adaptation, Royal played by William Harper introduces Mbedu’s character to the mythical underground railroad. “There is nothing in this world that Black folk cannot do,” he says, as he ushers an incredulous Cora into the unravelling underbelly of the American empire. 

This invention created by enslaved Black people is a literal conduit to liberation. Its mythicism in the book and its physicality on screen seems to tell us about the enduring nature of the human spirit. 

28 August 2019: Aaron Pierre as Caesar and Thuso Mbedu as Cora in a still from Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of The Underground Railroad. (Photograph by Kyle Kaplan/ Amazon Studios)

As African-American philosopher and scholar Lewis Gordon notes in his On Liberation and Decolonization discussion with Olufemi O Taiwo, “there are people who we do not know who set the conditions for our possibility. People like Harriet Bailey were the conditions of our possibility.”

Bailey was the mother of the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglas. As one watches this exchange between Cora and Royal, one can’t help but notice how Gordon’s sentiment is mirrored in this scene. Cora may or may not have ever existed, but multiple women like her did. 

Great American abolitionist Harriet Tubman was one of them. She was a woman who was audacious enough to demand her humanity and her freedom. Like the Haitian slave revolt in Saint Domingue, Tubman understood that her existence as a human meant she had an inalienable right to life. 

Cora’s existence, whether real or mythic, is a call for an unbridled humanist audacity. 

Mbedu’s dreamscape

As the interview with Mbedu draws to a close, she considers the role of dreams and what an unbridled faith in the divine has meant for her life. 

This project is simply Mbedu’s entrance into Hollywood. It is by no means where her star will stall. Recently she was announced as the lead in The Woman King, which also stars Academy Award-winner Viola Davis, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. 

While this kind of prestige is rare for most South African and African actors, it is not an impossible dream for Mbedu. She is an actor’s actor. Her decisions as an actor are layers of skill, training, intellect and plugging into her cosmic purpose. She is, as in the case of biblical matriarch Esther, “made for a time such as this”. 

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“One significant moment for me was… Well, I was still in Joburg and I went to Northcliff Hill, where you see most of Johannesburg, and I remember just admiring the landscape and I felt God say, ‘You think this is a lot? This is nothing compared to what I have for you,’” says Mbedu with a moving reverence. 

“Our perspective is limited, he sees it from much higher … and it’s always good for me to experience that shift in perspective.” Her eyes glimmer. In this moment, Mbedu understands that she is about to outlive her wildest dreams.

Correction, 18 May 2021: This article previously stated that Ruth was the biblical matriarch instead of Esther.

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