national Arts Festival Banner

Tuesday, December 31, 2013


(Bhoyi Ngema)

Actor and director Dr Christopher John pays tribute to the late Bhoyi Ngema.

I first met Bhoyi in 2006 when Mbongeni Ngema asked me to take a leading role in 1906: Bhambatha the Freedom Fighter. I think the production ran into difficulties reaching a wider audience when the political life of the country became consumed by the Mbeki/Zuma power struggle and the play became contentious as it celebrated South African armed struggle against colonialism and apartheid and placed its origins in this act of Zulu rebellion.

It had seemed to me extraordinary that the Drama and Performance Studies programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where I was working at the time, had no relationship with Ngema, such an important South African theatre practitioner who was then living in Durban. I approached Ngema and he agreed to provide some lectures for the UKZN students in return for my providing some skills training to the Committed Artists cast. Later, when he was having difficulty casting a white actor in the production, he asked me to join the company.

I was as excited to join the Committed Artists cast as I had been years earlier when I had worked for The Royal Shakespeare Company back in the UK. It seemed the rehearsal room teamed with the history and talent of black South African theatre. There is much about Mbongeni Ngema’s creativity and the work of Committed Artists that I would not have understood had I not worked with them on a daily basis.

Many of the key scenes I was involved with were with Bhoyi. He had played leads in most of Ngema’s productions dating back to Asinamali. It was he who decoded much of the theatre history and introduced me to the other great talents in the room many of whom had long associations with Committed Artists as well as connections dating back to Gibson Kente’s company.

Bhoyi seemed simple and very straightforward. He worked and went home. He was one of those actors who, when you worked with him, gave himself to you totally. Sure acting is about listening and responding but with Bhoyi this was a direct and intimate exchange of energy.

Outside the scene and when not acting he seemed very ordinary. For Bhoyi, the work was important – absolutely important. He worked for the Art not for money or status. And outside of the theatre industry, and despite the significance of the roles he had created, he never achieved the fame of Mbongeni Ngema. He also seemed incapable of holding onto money. He always seemed a penniless actor. So it was in role and on stage that he was at his most remarkable and acting with him is an experience I will seldom if ever meet again.

We became and remained good friends and, through Bhoyi, I became friends with the larger Ngema family. At this time I was being made very unwelcome within the Drama and Performance Studies programme at UKZN and it was privately the Ngema family who protected and held me during this difficult period; something for which I will always be grateful.

I briefly worked again with Bhoyi in Lion of the East when Ngema asked me to take over a leading white role for two performances when there were problems with the actor in the role. So I travelled to Nelspruit and successfully improvised my way through two performances. This was only possible if you are able to create an authentic connection with the other actors and to listen and respond. And so Ngema was able to make the point to the company that no-one could hold a whole project to ransom.

When The Lion of the East finished its run, again Bhoyi was penniless and he came to live with me, I had a house in Queensburgh. He stayed there for over a year. During the Durban run of The Lion of the East, Bhoyi had spent much of his time performing in the evenings and returning to the hospital where his then girlfriend Mpho Ngcobo was terminally ill – that was his day, back and forth, the play and the hospital. I was able to witness Bhoyi’s capacity for love that seemed to equal only the intensity with which he gave himself to a role and living a created existence on stage.

At the time of his death he was in a relationship with Busi Biyela and whenever I met them they seemed inseparable. Bhoyi had often been hurt in personal relationships but never lost the courage to love and to love absolutely.

The last time Bhoyi and I worked together was as writers on The Dictionary and then to test the product, I directed him in a short run of the play with Madala Kunene providing the music. The Dictionary was a story that Bhoyi and Mpho Ngcobo had been trying to develop into a play. Bhoyi and Ngema had invited me to work on it. We found a magical realist style with which to successfully tell a charming story about a rural man threatened by modernity personified and explored through his relationship with a dictionary. I think it a wonderful story and play. Here again Bhoyi worked on the project and drew a team together all who worked for very little money in order to create and test the project. Sadly, after a number of attempts the project never found a full production although initial discussions to produce it were underway at the time of Bhoyi’s death.

He worked on The Dictionary, as an actor, in order to develop his skill at detailed realism. His focus and ability to play a moment with total commitment and allow the audience to sit forward and respond to the performance was wonderful. Later, he gained success in the television series Muvhango. It had taken a long while for him to get the opportunity use his talent and skill in this medium. I thought it long overdue.

At one time, Bhoyi took me on a tour of the sites in and around Durban where they had rehearsed and performed Asinamali - including the site of the famous attack on the cast at Hammarsdale. He had come from rural Zululand to work on the play. Ngema had created and rehearsed the play with the cast over a period of about five years while he was touring internationally in Woza Albert. The play, in its day, was an intense collision of real-life experience and theatre.

It was this that shaped Bhoyi’s life as an artist. He told me how in those years, unlike today, when you toyi-toyied you knew one of you would die. Also, he spoke of the threat of ANC and IFP violence and how the lines between real-life and the play in this respect seemed at the time very blurred. When travelling abroad with the play he told me how unimpressed he had then been with all the theatre awards the work received and as a young man from KwaHlabisa, he only felt he had ‘arrived’ when they received an award for the play alongside an award given to the famous football star Maradona at the same event at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

While discussing Asinamali, Bhoyi said that he felt many revivals of the play mishandle it. This, because in order to perform it, he said, you need to have a child-like enthusiasm for life whether you are speaking about happiness sadness or violence. You need a child’s fascination and fixed attention for the moment at hand and then a great deal of energy.

It was this child-like attention that defined for me Bhoyi’s absolute commitment to acting and that I witnessed in his capacity and courage to love, no matter past hurt, all in a total commitment to the moment at hand. He died suddenly in a moment hit by a car and a great light went out for us all.

Dr Christopher John (AKA Christopher Hurst)

December 27, 2013