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Slindile Mthembu unpacks ancestral calling, mental health in ‘Old Soul Waiting’

A scene from “Old Soul Waiting”. Picture: Hymie Sokupha

A scene from “Old Soul Waiting”. Picture: Hymie Sokupha

Published Jun 29, 2022


One of the 2021 National Arts Festival’s most-watched online production “Old Soul Waiting” is back by popular demand at this year’s event for the second instalment of the show.

Conceptualised and written by theatre practitioner Slindile Mthembu “Old Soul Waiting,” unpacks issues of spirituality and mental health.

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The story explores how ancestral calling is misdiagnosed as a form of mental illness and combines narrative and interpretative dance into a fascinating hybrid experience of what a spiritual awakening possibly looks like in the Western and the spiritual realm.

“’Old Soul Waiting’ is an ode to one’s old soul, inner calling, or an awakening to self. The inspiration came about when I went back to a memory when I struggled as a young woman to express myself and people would find me a bit weird, because of my awkward silence,” explains Mthembu.

“I remembered an experience where my parents wanted to see if a child therapist could help unlock me. Thereafter, I learnt that, by putting my emotions and everything on a paper can help me express myself and that’s when I found my calling to self through writing.

“I always felt that I was trapped in my emotions and thoughts and wrote about this experience by creating a fictional character called Bongeziwe who suffers through a similar experience.”

Bongeziwe, played by Mthembu takes the audience through her childhood memory of growing up in an orphanage, where she discovered that she has an old soul or “moya” (spiritual being) that lives in her (played by Nhlakanipho Mkongi).

She wakes up years, days, or months later, feeling restrained in a isolated room, where she sees the old soul and is examined and treated by a nurse.

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Bongeziwe falls in and out of sleep and is visited by her umakhulu (elderly woman) in her dreams to warn her about this place. One woman. Two split personalities.

“I created her character arc that speaks about her emotional obstacles of being abandoned by her mother at birth and leaving her at an orphanage, and who remembers being raised by a grandmother that adopted her.

"The overarching idea is to speak through the little girl’s calling and to see how the split between the Western and spiritual world perceives her. Is she ill or do the other people not understand that this could be a transition period of a woman going through a calling?”

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The Joburg-based playwright says bringing the production to life came with its fair share of challenges and victories as she prepares to showcase the work at theatres around the country, later in the year.

“I honestly think that I was spiritually prepared for this process and all the short listings that I received when applying for playwriting residencies.

“I got feedback that the work is bold, but they don’t see how it will be possible to be presented on a stage and if South African audiences will get it.

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“So I had to stick to my soul and what it was asking of me to do. I had a goal and the goal was to do it either way with or without help.

“With the lack of resources, but deep love from my collaborators who were sold to the idea I knew that I could approach the National Arts Festival to get help to film the work in 2021.

“The work has now gone on to be screened at the independent cinema to two sold-out shows. The experience of sitting with an audience in a cinema and listening to their reactions to the message has been incredibly humbling.

“It was then when I said to myself ‘you should never allow anyone to stop you from sharing the messages you carry with you that need to be shared with the world’.”

“Old Soul Waiting” was also awarded the Silver Standard Bank Ovation Award for experimental play at the NAF 2021.

“Old Soul Waiting” is a contemporary South African experimental play. It’s new. It’s different and audiences are over (done) watching plays that speak through the apartheid era lens. Our world has had to move on and we have stories that deserve to be seen now.

“As an unpublished black woman playwright, it has been a game-changer to now impact you through the screen.”

To watch “Old Soul Waiting” and other NAF online shows, visit the festival website.

The National Arts Festival is currently taking place in Makhanda, Eastern Cape, until Sunday, July 3.