Her documentary, Noma - Forgiving Apartheid, starts in the dusty hills of KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1970s, and tells the story of a family torn apart. It addresses the issue of forced migration happening at the moment on an unprece- dented scale around the world.
In an exclusive interview with The Independent on Saturday, the actress said her parents were forced to flee “when I was in my mother’s womb”.
“I have since grown to learn, when I was ready to understand, the journey my parents had to undertake. As all those fleeing any country of conflict, it is not a choice made lightly in any part of the decision.
“My mother would not see her family again for another 26 years. I can’t even imagine that. Sadly, the state of the world right now is affecting many young and grown children and parents,” she said.
Her parents fled to Swaziland, where she was born, and she lived in Kenya and Uganda before arriving in England as a 7-year-old with her mother.
Her parents split up, and it was to be many years before she saw her father again.
“The documentary is about meeting my father. I grew up in Ipswich and after leaving Africa, my world changed greatly. We were ‘other’. It was cold, grey and alien in the beginning, and I’m definitely a child of the sun,” she said.
When she was 13, she met her “creative tribe” at a youth theatre group where her “friends were made up of these people who wanted to make stories in imaginative and various ways, on the stage and behind the scenes. We bonded in this space that showed us all the different possibilities of the world”. And her love for theatre was born.
When she was 17, she went to London to seek fame and fortune on the stage, taking any jobs she could to pay rent while acting in fringe productions and doing workshops.
An actor, whom she did not want to identify, took Noma under his wing and became her mentor, and her life on the stage became reality.
Since then, her theatre credits include taking on the role of Linda in the production of the same name at the Royal Court, when Sex and The City’s Kim Cattrall pulled out at the last moment; Feast and Belong, also at the Royal Court; A Human Being Died That Night at the Hampstead Theatre; Macbeth, Winter’s Tale and Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company; Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre, as well as A Raisin in the Sun at the Young Vic at the Lyric Hammersmith, for which she was the recipient of a Laurence Olivier Award.
She has also appeared at The Fugard and The Market theatres in A Human Being Died that Night as activist Professor Pumla Madikizela.
But prior to that, Noma came back to KwaZulu-Natal to meet her mother’s family.
“I first visited my mother’s family in my early thirties. Meeting my maternal gogo, aunts, uncles and cousins in Umzimkulu district it was intense, I felt so out of place as many people brought up in different culture and environment are wont to do.
“I had to give myself a talking to just ‘be’. This was helped by my gogo saying to me via Mama that she trusted I would understand what I needed to know when she spoke to me in Xhosa and spiritually, she kind of did,” she said.
Connecting with the African continent “in the most romantic, benign yet powerful way it was possible to feel”, Sarah said she saw herself in ways she had not anticipated.
“Growing up in a place that I was not the norm makes you question your worth, however much ‘fronting’ one does. Here in South Africa, I saw myself reflected everywhere I went.”
It was her friendship with film producer Sarah Townsend which led to the idea to create a documentary.
“I didn’t decide to make the documentary, it was my friend Sarah who saw there was a story there that I hadn’t really acknowledged, that deep down I was in denial.
“I saw it as just my story, and why would that be interesting? But a friend put it into relief, saying it wasn’t only my story, but the story of my parents and what forced migration can do to families,” she said.
The film took two years to make and director, Sarah Townsend, an Emmy nominated documentary filmmaker who has been friends with Dumezweni for 20 years, said when she heard Noma may be seeing her father again after 30 years, she set about filming at once.
“When Noma was offered the role of Pumla Madikizela in 2014 in South Africa, she was still racked with confusion about her own identity and reluctantly accepted the role, only to find that it changed her life and brought her face to face with her history, her homeland and her father,” said Townsend.
The film will be screened at the Rapid Lion Film Festival on March 10 and 11. For festival information, go to www.rapidlion.co.za