WHEN we meet in the Fugard Theatre foyer, actor Mbulelo Grootboom (pictured) is listening to Meshell Ndegeocello – he likes her music because of the way she expresses emotion.
An intensely private person, Grootboom isn’t one to hold court in a public forum or display his feelings overly much.
He hesitates to call what he does acting, instead trying to make a connection with the character he is called on to portray and then trying to figure out how that person would react in a specific situation.
Currently to be seen on TV screens in e.tv’s Traffic, the Fleur du Cap winner has several TV and film roles to his credit, such as White Wedding, Montana, Stokvel, Treknet and Forced Love, but is equally at home on stage. He won the Best Supporting Actor Fleur du Cap for Just Business last year and has worked with Dame Janet Suzman at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, on The Suitcase with James Ngcobo at the Baxter and with Claire Stopford on Reach.
Grootboom is in rehearsals for Athol Fugard’s latest play, Playland, which will start with previews this week and then be part of the Suidoosterfees.
Playland has been translated into Afrikaans by Saartjie Botha, is directed by Albert Maritz, co-stars Albert Pretorius and is set on New Year’s Eve, 1990.
Grootboom’s character is an ex-Swapo soldier and night watchman named Martinus Zoeloe, who now works at an amusement park, but harbours some deep dark secrets.
Zoeloe encounters a slightly inebriated patron – an ex-soldier named Gideon le Roux – who has an ulterior motive in visiting the park.
While he has never worked as a night watchman, Grootboom approached the character as a man in love – the deep, dark secret is tied up with this – and wondered aloud how he would react in a similar situation.
“When I’m angry, that is when I show emotion and, yes, I could be a danger to others or myself,” said Grootboom.
The Afrikaans play contains many monologues, which is testing his language skills, but Grootboom is particular grateful to the two Alberts, as he calls his fellow actor and the director.
“I’ve learnt a lot from them about the language and its intricacies. I’m really blessed to be able to work in three languages,” the actor said.
Growing up in Graaff Reinet, Grootboom learnt to speak both his mother tongue, Xhosa, and the dominant language spoken in the area – Afrikaans – with almost equal facility.
Throw in the English of school – and university since he graduated from UCT with a BA in theatre and performance – and he code-switches like so many of his fellow South Africans born in 1983.
He loves speaking Afrikaans because of its emotional intensity, expressiveness and guttural explosiveness, so similar to Xhosa.
“Even though you’re telling the story of yesterday, you’re right there,” he describes how his Playland character tries to explain his actions.
While his first language – the language he dreams in – is Xhosa, his Playland character’s first language is Afrikaans. This means he has had to rethink how the character reacts to how he is spoken to.
Here is when reacting on the emotional level becomes so important: “Everyone has emotions, we all get scared, that’s the basis from which I am working.”
Rehearsals have been going for two weeks and the set is being finished – it being an amusement park, the night watchman’s room is festooned with all manner of broken parts, bits and bobs.
Still, Grootboom cannot rely on props alone to create the world for the audience: “There are two people from different spectrums on stage, which you see without it being said.
“The way they react to each other, that shows where they come from.”
Grootboom’s character is older and expects to be treated in a certain way, while Maritz’s character also has certain expectations, it being 1990 when things in South Africa were very different to what they are now.
In the end, though, Grootboom says the story is about recon- ciliation and redemption, which comes at the price of having to bare all thoughts and emotions, on the part of both characters.
• Playland runs at The Fugard Theatre, Caledon Street, from Thursday to February 15. R120 to R150 at Computicket.