Connie Chiume. Picture: Supplied

Hollywood screen goddess, Meryl Streep once famously defined acting as giving voice to characters that have no other voice. “That’s the great worth of what we do,” she explained. 

There’s no question about the fact that actors are great storytellers on any medium – television, big screen or theatre. They provide respite and escape – albeit temporarily – from the often harsh realities of life. At the same time they hold up a mirror to the truths that humanity would rather pretend they don’t exist.

Actors shine the spotlight on human frailties and societal flaws and by so doing render meaning to an imperfect world. But do most of us understand these deeper roles of the performance arts besides the obvious entertainment value that they provide? Visual Conversations attempts to answer these questions.

The SABC3 four-part documentary series features more than a dozen of some of South Africa’s finest thespians who have left deep footprints in the local and international acting industry.

Through the practitioners’ individual journeys and testimonies, the series explores complex issues around the art-form itself – its role in society and how the artists themselves relate to communities that produced them. 

These themes are even more poignant in the South African context, a society that for generations was based on legalised racial segregation. For instance, if it is indeed true that the actor’s role is to mirror society, then those who are featured on this documentary share how apartheid impacted on their craft. 

Wilson Dunster, who is primarily a stage actor in the classic Shakespearean sense but who has become a familiar face on a number of Afrikaans television dramas, recalls how he was dismayed at the fact that during apartheid stage directors would cast a white actor in the role of Othello, a black character, because the law prohibited actors from different racial backgrounds from performing together. 

But as Vanessa Cooke attests in the first episode of this gripping and enlightening series, Dorkay House provided an artistic platform for performers of different colours and creeds to work together despite what the laws of the land dictated.   
Connie Chiume remembers how she quit the classroom in 1976 in pursuit of a career as a stage performer. The accomplished television actress and Black Panther award-winning star was a young and naïve schoolteacher when she left her small town of Welkom in the Free State for the bright lights of the big city. 

Chiume says although she had no acting background at the time, she was confident about her singing and dancing abilities. She landed her first stage role in the globetrotting Ipi Ntombi musical after a successful audition.

Other veteran performers who are featured include Andrew Buckland, Elize Cawood and Darlington Michaels, best remembered as the shady Georgie Zamdela in the SABC3 soapie, Isidingo.  

He recounts dreadful times for directors and cast members when performing schedules in township venues would be disrupted by the arrests of fellow actors for failing to produce their dompasses. The series also shows how the dawn of democracy changed the usual protest theatre narrative to incorporate diverse and complex themes on the new South African dynamics.  
A new generation of thespians like James Ngcobo, Sylvaine Strike, Makhaola Ndebele, Maurice Page, Quanita Adams, Christo Davids and Thalita Ndima offers their insights and perspectives on what it means to be an actor in contemporary South Africa. At the heart of their craft is the stories they tell, but most significantly, how they tell them. 

In the final analysis, Visual Conversations is a dialogue about our painful past and the current state of the performing arts. It’s a celebration of the astounding acting talent the country is blessed with and a poignant reminder to the viewer that the role of an actor in society should never be taken for granted. It is a role that gives a voice to the voiceless.
Visual Conversations is broadcast every Sunday on SABC3 at 7:30pm.