Chi Mhende is a ball breaker in 'Queen Sono'
Having bowled fans over with her trans character in SABC1’s "Generations: The Legacy", Chi Mhende summons her inner Jessica Pearson-meets-Olivia Pope for her power-wielding role in "Queen Sono".
This first fully-produced African Original series - with an all-African cast, nogal - has been making a lot of noise as it premiered last Friday, with the red-carpet shindig taking place at Joburg Theatre the night before.
Star-studded is no understatement when looking at the cast line-up of Pearl Thusi (Queen Sono), Vuyo Dabula (Shandu), Kate Liquorish (Ekaterina), Rob Van Vuuren (Viljoen), James Ngcobo (President Malunga), Abigail Khubeka (Mazet), Chonnie Chiume (Nana), Vaneshran Arumugam (Ulrich) and Sechaba Morojele (Dr Sid).
And Chi Mhende gets to be part of the action in her role as Miri, the second-in-command at SOG.
This world of secret agents in magnificently interwoven with politics.
Ahead of the red carpet event, I got to enjoy a tête-à-tête with Mhende, who revealed she was on the brink of a time out from acting when she landed this part. She was playing Wandile in the SABC1 daily drama.
She explained: “I had been acting for some time. I had moved to Johannesburg four and a half years ago to work on Generations: The Legacy. And I was in the process of moving on from Generations. I was not wanting to be an actor. I was moving into directing/ mentorship. I was just feeling like I wanted to remove myself from performance for a little bit.
“I auditioned before I left for Cape Town for a little holiday. I was sitting on a beach in Yzerfontein. I switched off my phone for a little bit.”
Her agent was completely supportive of the decision.
While she was soaking up the sun and enjoying life on the beach, she received an email with the news - she bagged the part in the Netflix show.
She recalled: “I took it, I was very, very grateful that I did.
Reflecting on her first major TV role in "Generations", she said: “I had never been exposed to anyone in the trans culture. I knew my Ls, my Gs and my Bs but I never met any of my Ts. I have been incredibly blessed to have amazing trans women in Cape Town and Johannesburg, teach me and help me with my research.”
It wasn’t an easy character to slip into, either.
She admits, “The first time, I had to perform strapped while I was menstruating. It was a lot.”
Thankfully, she had a great support structure there and for "Queen Sono", too.
Of course, her character is vastly different in the new show.
Mhende shared: “For me, as a Zimbabwean woman, getting the opportunity to play this woman. I think I’ve always been able to work with very sexually-extroverted, powerful and exciting characters. There is a very strict tension about this woman. She’s very straight with her hair. I describe her costume as cling-wrapped. There’s something about her that feels like she is tied-down even though she’s supposed to be the head and the leader.
“I think that is going to be something exciting and realistic of what we see of our bosses and our women.
"Strong in the head and a mother. You may be leading worlds and countries but then you go home and you need to cry, you need to take care of your family and you need to be real. It’s almost as if the woman in the office is a complete facade because when you see her with her mother, even her voice changes. Her voice is very much in her throat. Almost feels like a lump and a weight. You almost can’t hear her when she is in the presence of her mother.”
On how she chose to play such a multidimensional character, she offered: “By good conversations with the directors. Sitting with the script and having really spent some time trying to understand who this woman was. In the SOG space, she is a young character but people doubt her abilities, asking, ‘Why is it that she is the director-general. What is her experience, what is her background?’ She is an intelligent woman, people doubt her experience because she is young.”
Being the youngest person on the job is something Mhende experienced in real-life and, as such, was able to extract the emotions effortlessly,
Interestingly enough, she’s worked with Van Vuuren before.
She offered: “I was happy to be working with someone I call my older brother in the industry, Rob van Vuuren. So much love for that man. Then sitting with Sechaba, Pearl (Mama "Black Panther"), sitting with the laughter that Loyiso could give me and, all the while, feeling nervous and not wanting to let those people down.”
Mhende explored the full gamut of emotions behind the scenes, too. There were times when her nerves threatened to get the better of her. When she felt she was going to faint from sheer exhaustion. When she was freezing but refused to let the cold interfere with her “swag”.
Of course, she couldn’t’ have gotten through it all if it wasn’t for the incredible support of the cast and crew. She counts her blessing for that.
"Queen Sono" is available on Netflix