Five Female Theatre Makers in South Africa You Should Know

By Kgomotso Moncho (@kgomotsomoncho)

A run down of women who are making waves on the local theatre scene.


This articles was originally published in this post.

Mwenya Kabwe

Mwenya is a Zambian theatre maker and performer with an afripolitan approach to how she works. She has a Masters in Theatre and Performance from the University of Cape Town where she also lectures in the Drama Department.

I encountered her in the production of Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman, directed by Lara Bye for the Market Theatre in 2008. Her role as Alma in Yellowman won her the 2009 Naledi Theatre Award for Best Performance by a newcomer, on top of other awards like the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunsfees (KKNK) 2008 award for Best Upcoming Professional Artist and the Handspring Award for Best Visual Theatre Production in 2010 for 27 Windows, 4 Doors, 2 Taps, a devised production co-directed by Mandla Mbothwe.

She was in Mountaintop, a play by American playwright, Katori Hall that just finished its run at the Market Theatre directed by Warona Seane. A recipient of the Olivier Award in 2010 for best new play in London, it was staged on Broadway with Samuel L Jackson and Angela Bassett.

It’s about Dr Martin Luther King Jr on the fateful night in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the evening before his assassination. Mwenya plays the chambermaid who encounters the icon in the motel alongside Sello Sebotsane who plays Martin Luther King Jr.



(From ‘Mountaintop’. Photo credit: Ruphin Coudyzer)

She says, “I have always wanted to work with Warona for a long time. And after Yellowman I wondered what would be interesting, juicy and complex and if there would be anything that could top that. Mountaintop is interesting work and doing it is great. It’s an intimate process as two handers are harder. But I’m extremely fortunate to have these two works as part of my repertoire.”

Mwenya has been in Cape Town for six years and she praises the city for its interesting theatre platforms which offer plenty of opportunities to experiment. The thread that runs through her theatre making is migration and being Afripolitan. Examples of these include her productions, For Nomads Who Have Considered Settling When The Travel Is Enuf (2007) – the title derived from Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For Coloured Girls Who Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf; and Migritude Echo (2011).

Migritude is a term coined by poet and writer, Shailja Patel and is the title of her spoken word theatre show. The word play draws on this history of negritude and captures the energy of migrants with attitude.  And Patel, Shange and Adrienne Kennedy are Mwenya’s major influences.

Aside from Mountaintop, she is working on a show, a choreopoem with site specific and visual elements, calledAfrocartography: Traces of Places and All Points In Between. This interrogates the way of being Afripolitan in the world; migration on the African continent and the sense of displacement on a physical, psychological and emotional level. Creatively it explores the poetry of the body and language. Mwenya wrote and co-directed the interdisciplinary piece with Khayelihle Dom Gumede and choreographer, Liya Gonga.


Jemma Kahn

She was on the Mail and Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans 2013 list, her production, The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories for Consenting Adults caused a buzz in the arts circle and has already bagged the Critics’ Choice Award at the Amsterdam Fringe Festival and a raving Twitter review from singer Annie Lennox.

A 30-year-old Joburg girl, Jemma is a performer, set designer, illustrator and director with two BA degrees in Fine Art and Drama.

The idea for The Epicene Butcher came to her when she came across the street theatre artform, Kamishibai while teaching English in Japan between 2008 and 2010. When she came home she got writer Gwydion Beynon and director John Trengove together and they collaborated on the stage production.



(Epicene Butcher photos Dean Hutton

It is picture storytelling and story boarding that tells seven stories with a Japanese connection, with themes spanning across mythology, pornography, horror and sci-fi, interspersed with comic relief and mime.

With Nelson Mandela in their thoughts, the last story is an illustration about the iconic hero’s long walk to freedom. The show is due to travel to Edinburgh and to the Hilton festival in Durban in September.  Going forward she and her team are considering doing a Kamishibai’s children’s show.

Jemma has worked with some of the best in South African theatre like Greg Homann and Helen Iskander, and made her directorial debut at the recent 969 Festival at Wits University via a production called The Last Show with the fabulous and quirky Toni Morkel.

“I’m excited and nervous at the same time. And while Toni is known for her comic brilliance, this show is quite dark. And we believe in it,” says Jemma.

She enjoys theatre with a strong visual element and multi disciplinary angle. While South Africa has a successful tradition and history of protest, physical, traditional and community theatre, Jemma Kahn is part of a new wave of young voices doing new and innovative work.


Princess Zinzi Mhlongo

Princess is the Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for Theatre 2012 and she best exemplifies the success of a nurtured talent. She was discovered by the South African State Theatre when Artistic Director, Aubrey Sekhabi gave her chance to direct the Zakes Mda’s play  And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses. She directed the play impressively with a fresh and youthful eye that the Market Theatre scooped a run of the play as well.


She comes from a background of physical, abstract and experimental theatre which she learnt from lecturer, Janine Lewis at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria.

Mhlongo’s fearlessness to experiment and challenge herself saw her tackling Sarah Kane’s complex play, 4.48 Psychosiswith vigour at the National Arts Festival in 2010.

She directed another classic play, So What’s New for the Market Theatre before taking her first written production, Trapped to the Salzburg Theatre Festival in Austria in 2012, where she was part of a Young Directors competition. She documented her journey with Trapped in a docci/reality programme called Life’s a Stage for the SABC.

Hlengiwe-Lushaba-Madlala-Lesego-Motsepe-in-And-The-Girls-In-Their-Sunday-Dresses (1)

(L-R: Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, Lesego Motsepe)

When struggling to find a space to rehearse with her massive set, she found a place in Bezuidenhout Valley, which she’s turned into an experimental space for artists. Called The Plat4orm, it is a part of Skills Village and you can read more on it here.

This is what she feels strongly about, “I feel so strongly about artists knowing that if they don’t do it, no one will. I have worked so hard for my goals. There are talented people out there who are constantly waiting for someone to jump out and say ‘hey you’re great’ but they don’t realise that you have to find those people,” she says.


Khutjo Green

The aftermath of the horrendous xenophobic violent outbreak of 2008 left a creative space for artist to navigate through the impacts of those debilitating attacks. There’s the award winning film, Man on Ground by Akin Omotoso. For the stage, there’s the new play by Gina Shmukler, The Line, starring Khutjo Green and Gabi Harris (pictured above).

The play is a culmination of Shmukler’s Masters Research on trauma and theatre making and is constructed from a series of interviews with South Africans involved or affected by the xenophobic attacks of May 2008. It explores the reasons, the trauma and effects of the incident and represents a youth’s response thereof.


Khutjo gives a powerful performance here and when the play got a standing ovation at its first staging at Wits last year, she was alarmingly more emotional. I found out later that it’s because her husband is Ugandan and she’s admitted she got scared for him.

The subject matter is clearly bigger than the play. “It’s been hard on me, but it has also opened my eyes. The play paints a picture of where we are as a country. The picture got realer when we staged it in Alexandra where some of these attacks took place. I was absolutely shaken. Alex is so poor that people are living on top of each other it’s claustrophobic. This comes at a pivotal time where we need to talk about this. What’s eerie is that one of my characters says this could happen again and this was reiterated by one of the peace talkers in Alex, a magogo, who said we’re sitting on a volcano, which will erupt if nothing is done,’ Khutjo says.

She is currently doing her Masters in Drama looking at the position of witnessing violence in South Africa. She has been in productions like Brer Rabbit by Shmukler and Eclipse directed by Warona Seane on Liberia’s Charles Taylor to name a couple. She is one to watch. And she’s the assistant director on Mwenya Kabwe’s, Afrocartography: Traces of Places and All Points In Between on at Wits from July 16 – 27.

The Line travels to King Williams Town, the Hilton Festival in Durban and Gauteng schools before heading back to Alex this year.


Jade Bowers

What is appealing about Jade is that the work she produces, directs and designs reflects her interests in the intersections between culture, identity and sexuality. This isn’t fully explored in South African theatres and it makes her daring.

While working at the University of Joburg (UJ)’s Arts and Culture under the leadership of Ashraf Johaardien, she was involved in the Reading Gay and THATSOGAY theatre festivals as well as being part of the team that staged Johaardien’s adaptation of K Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams last year.


She staged Clora at PopArt in Joburg’s Maboneng Precinct and communicated messages of homophobia, intolerance and crimes of both apparent and actual hatred in a fun cabaret show.

But her most challenging work has been iHAMLET, Robin Malan’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tragical History of Hamlet – Prince of Denmark.

“In a world of iPads, iPods, iPhones, Blackberry, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, the way in which Robin cut and collaged one of Shakespeare’s longest works into an hour-long solo performance for me mirrored a contemporary fixation with the ‘i’. Directorially, I tried to deconstruct not only Hamlet’s identity but also male fears and fantasies in general,” Jade explains.



“The kind of work I enjoy creating is work that is compelling, challenging and provocative. I want audiences who come see my work to leave the theatre changed somehow, even if it’s just that the work has made them feel something they’ve never felt before. I want them to feel like they’ve experienced something unique,” she adds.

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