Last year, Thembsie Matu’s 30-year anniversary in the acting industry coincided with landing her most famous role as Patronella in The Queen.
I can’t recall a housekeeper character that had caught popular imagination the way the vixen-ish but humorous and vivacious Patronella has done.
In fact, local authors of dramas and soapies are not known for creating roles that explore the often intricate relationships between maids and madams - which makes this character so exciting and currently the most talked about role on the small screen.
e.TV’s Madam and Eve (2000), adapted from the popular newspaper comic strip of the same name and starring Val Donald Bell (Gwen “Madam” Anderson) and Tina Jaxa (Eve Sisulu), was a notable exception.
The other explanation for its phenomenal success is that the actress combines her natural talent with three decades of experience on stage and screen.
Her date with destiny happened during her high school years after she watched a Gibson Kente play at a local community hall in her East Rand hometown of Katlehong. There and then, Matu resolved to become an actress and she has never looked back.
She has discovered her calling in life.
In 1987, she made her professional stage debut in Sekunjalo (1986), one of the late playwright’s famous works. Then followed What A Shame (1989) and Give A Child (1989) as well as subsequent TV roles in Mama’s Love (1994) and Lahliwe (1999) - all these from Kente’s pen and directing.
It was a dream start and a stroke of luck to have been mentored by a highly regarded thespian who was hailed as the father of township theatre. Memorable TV adverts that ranged from insecticides to DStv confirmed her natural comedic touch and staying power in the popular imagination.
Thirty-one years later, Matu is still a sought-after stage performer. In recent years she captivated theatre lovers when she portrayed Tinker Bell in the swashbuckling pantomime classic adventure, Peter Pan.
The sense of imagination and passion she displayed as the famous mercurial fairy is clearly evident in her portrayal of Patronella, a cheeky, confident and feisty character who was introduced into The Queen storyline and written specially for Matu.
Patronella’s genesis as a rural housewife who leaves the countryside in search of her husband in the big city is a classic and, indeed, tragic South African story that has been told in literature but hardly on the screen.
It’s about the systematic destruction of the African family as the black men were forced to seek employment in urban areas as a result of the migrant labour system and were eventually made to cut ties with the loved ones as they became city dwellers.
Consequently, spouses and children would follow them as economic conditions in the countryside became unbearable. Patronella is one of those women, a Xhosa speaker who proves to adapt quickly to the streetwise manners of the city bred.
She is not prepared to play second fiddle to anyone - including her husband Mjekejeke (Sipho Manzini), and employer Gracious Mabuza (played by Rami Chuene).
All things considered, Patronella is currently the talk of the town, an inspirational woman with tons of attitude and humour, thanks to Matu’s exceptional acting.