Not many people know this about the inimitable Sello Maake ka Ncube – but Can Themba changed his life.
He explains, in his rich baritone voice, “My relationship with Can Themba goes as far back as the late ’80s for me. At the time, I was contemplating giving up acting. I had done Woza Albert and found myself doing a couple of plays where I was the only black in the cast.
“Somehow, that really affected me. I was in a very despondent state. And there I was in Hillbrow. There used to be an Exclusive Books shop on Pretoria Street and, in my idle state, I drifted in. I think I had just come back from an audition and it was one where you know you didn’t get it. So I was in that state when I was browsing through the books and came across The World of Can Themba. I found it interesting, bought it, went home and started reading. That book changed my life and my attitude.”
He continues, “It wasn’t just articles I could relate to, but it was written in such exquisite English too. Can’s way of capturing things was just mindblowing for me. At the time, I compiled a couple of his stories and presented a showcase at the Market Theatre Laboratory with a one-man show…”
Maake ka Ncube adds, “Just by reading Requiem for Sophiatown and so on, it just hit me so deeply. I kind of felt an affinity to his frustration.
“The way Can chronicled what was happening in Sophiatown was something I could relate to. You realise that while you have a certain kind of potential – because of the colour of your skin, that potential is suppressed. It’s not given a fair chance to bloom.”
In a way, he has come full circle by revisiting this life-defining chapter in Siphiwo Mahala’s one-hander, The House of Truth.
Maake ka Ncube explains how this status quo came to be: “The year before last, I was just busy filming The Whale Caller in the Western Cape and Siphiwo communicated with me and sent me the script of The House of Truth.
“After reading it, I called him and said, ‘I think you would do it as a one-hander on the basis that most of the characters are basically responding to Can’s way of thinking. And those characters weren’t really well-developed.’ He said he hadn’t written a one man show so I gave him examples of plays to read.
“After a while, he came back to me and said, ‘I managed to do it and here’s the script.’ The goosebump moment came after reading it. And I started pitching myself to him even though he just wanted feedback.”
What Mahala did, though, was expand the veteran actor’s insight of a real-life character who inspired him.
He notes, “Siphiwo is doing his PhD on Can Themba and he has unearthed such a lot of things about his life. As much as you know that he ended up a journalist, all he wanted to do was be a teacher. He passed English with distinction and he wanted to teach English at schools but because he wasn’t recognised as a teacher as didn’t have a teaching diploma, he wasn’t paid a full teacher’s salary…”
The veteran actor continues, “Ultimately, journalism came as a way to earn a living. He was called ‘The Teacher’ in the newsroom.”
Following a very promising run at the National Arts Festival, where The House of Truth earned rave reviews, it kicked off the line-up at The Market Theatre this year. The run ends on Saturday.
Mahala delivers a poignant story, laced with humour and profound irony, as he chronicles Themba’s journey in the newsroom, where he fostered immense respect for exploring bureaucratic inconsistencies and encouraging intellectual debate.
Maake Ka Ncube adds, “Just looking at the canvas of apartheid’s devastation on human souls, one can see that Can’s story is aligned with that canvas.”
The House of Truth is a moving tribute to an unsung hero and his remarkable legacy.