Acclaimed South African actor Sello Maake ka Ncube feels right at home in Can Themba’s shoes. This week, he begins yet another run of The House of Truth – a bio-play about Themba’s life – at the Soweto Theatre. It will run until May 21.
Themba is the late great writer who was one of the faces of the iconic Drum magazine era and Maake ka Ncube, who is also playing one of TV’s most beloved characters in The Queen, has always had an affinity for him and his work.
There are often artists who influence other artists to such an extent that their whole lives are changed by the mere interaction with that specific artist’s work.
This is the case with Maake ka Ncube. At a time when the then-budding actor’s life was starting to slow down, he read Themba’s The World of Can Themba and everything changed.
“I was so despondent with the industry at that time,” Maake ka Ncube tells me.
“I found myself doing plays where I was the only black in the cast and the characters were not well written. That was a frustration on my part and I thought: ‘what is the point of being in this business?’ That was in the late 80s.”
“Then I got The World of Can Themba and as I read it, I thought: ‘Here is a man who is articulating a life experience that I can relate to. And with such exquisite English.’ His life experiences come through in his writing. Especially in what seems like memoirs and obituaries he’d write.”
Maake ka Ncube continues: “I got a sense of who he was emotionally and intellectually. After reading that, I actually compiled two of his works and presented them as a one-man play, as a showcase at the Market Theatre Laboratory in 1999.
“Then I later found myself doing the first adaptation of The Suit at the Market Theatre and won the Best Actor award for it. His work came at a pivotal point in my life. I think I’m very influenced by him when I write. When I was doing my screenwriting course in the UK, the head of the department read my work and said he could hear Can Themba in my writing.
Maake ka Ncube says Themba and others “were the people who were frustrated by the apartheid system and tried to use education to overcome that but the system was too hard on them.”
In The House of Truth, Maake ka Ncube takes the audience through the paces of how Themba was. Or rather: an interpretation thereof. I asked him if his process, when playing people who really existed, was any different from bringing a fictional character to life.
“When I played former president Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia Trial, because Mandela was so fresh in people’s memories, there wasn’t a way I could not invoke some kind of impersonation,” Maake ka Ncube recalls.
“I am not a very good impersonator as an actor. Impersonation is not my forte at all. Because I was playing Mandela and he was so fresh in people’s memories and had such a remarkable way of speaking, I basicaly had to adopt his rhythm of speaking. The rest was just me drawing from my own emotional and intellectual bank. With Can Themba, I was drawing more from my experiences.
“I don’t know what kind of a person he was in terms of his speech,” he confesses.
“There are people who are still alive and I have experienced them. For instance Chris Hani – I would have to do a little research, study his speech patterns and how he carried himself. His poise and all that. But with Can Themba in The House of Truth, I have taken certain liberties in the sense that I am just recreating him in my own way.”
Those who have not seen this one-man play which is written by Siphiwo Mahala and directed by Vanessa Cooke may not know whether The House of Truth is literal or figuritive so Maake ka Ncube sets the record straight.
“For Can Themba, it was a place where the truth shall be spoken,” Maake ka Ncube explains emphatically.
“He was an avid debater so he saw his house – which was a single room, actually – as what he called the house of truth.
“The journalists of those times called their homes names so his pad was called the house of truth because that was where the truth would be spoken. Nothing else. If you needed wine to induce the truth, that’s what you’d get but you must then always speak the truth.”
He pauses then says: “What I decry about those times is that you had people who were doing intellectual gymnastics and challenging each other intellectually.
“Our environment now is one of Twitter and Facebook. People are on WhatsApps and what have you. That was an age of renaissance.”
l House of Truth is showing at the Soweto Theatre from May 10 until 21. Tickets cost R120 at the box office.
Sello Maake ka Ncube in The House of Truth.