In Conversation with DiepCity Queens

Article by John-Otto Phike

In celebration of Women’s Month and DiepCity’s 100th episode we got a front row seat to chat to some of the strong female characters that we’ve grown to love since the launch of the show in April. In between our chats we captured some beautiful images of the ladies driving the concept line #DiepCityQueens, the focus was on Dawn Thandeka King, Vele Manenje and Lebohang Mpyana, these ladies have shared with viewers dramatic and comedic relief moments that get all of us talking and reflecting on themes that we can all relate to.

The #DiepCityQueens are real, authentic, beautiful and shifters in our communities, we all know and love these women from next door. This falls well in line with our August focus for Women’s month under our #WomenTakeLead spotlight.

Here’s what the ladies shared with us…

John-Otto: Since the launch of DiepCity viewers can’t get enough of this telenovela, why do you think this is the case?

Dawn Thandeka King : People have fallen in love with Diepcity because they can identify with the people of DiepCity. DiepCity represents a large percentage of people in South Africa that live in informal settlements. We are mirroring what most people would like to forget. People would like to forget that there are people that live in informal settlements or people who have less than they have. We bring this community and population to your home everyday. People realize that, whether you live in a shack or a mansion, you still are human, you have aspirations, you have goals and you wish for more than you have. In the eyes of the person that lives in a different environment, they might think Diepsloot is dirty or whatever, but that’s their life. I am not saying that they shouldn’t be given better lifestyles but this is the reality that they live in and that is what people are identifying with. There are a lot of people that live in shacks, that watch DSTV, that watch what we represent, so they identify and love DiepCity for representing them.

John-Otto: DiepCity is set in Diepsloot, there are many challenges in this setting but this is a community, one that is there for each other… What beautiful things can you say about this place?

Dawn Thandeka : My partner and I often say, “When you’re in Diepsloot, you don’t sleep hungry because the community provides for itself.” When we first started shooting DiepCity, we did our promo photoshoot in Diepsloot and it was my first experience in Diepsloot. It’s very similar to the set up we have here on set, which is a recreation of Diepsloot. It’s a friendly community and I wish they had better living conditions, but I don’t want to take away from the fact that they are happy with what they have. All you ever see when you’re there is people laughing and chatting. That is where I get to observe certain characters and add on to my character, Thandiwe. I just appreciate that people in Diepsloot work hard and make an honest living. I really appreciate representing Diepsloot.

John-Otto: On the topic of representation. Tshivenda is not necessarily a widely spoken language or often displayed on television. What does representing a character that expresses herself in a minority language mean to you and your craft Vele?

Vele Manenje: It gives me a sense of belonging. It is a privilege to act in your own language because it allows you to showcase your background and heritage. It means a lot to me to be able to play this part in Tshivenda. I am mutli-lingual, I normally play characters that speak other languages, so when I get to play a character who speaks Tshivenda, then I am happy. Another thing that I realized is that I am able to express Maureen a lot more because I am speaking in my mother tongue.

John-Otto: Ladies, you play your characters with ease and so much truth, what process of preparation did each of you take on to allow for a true reflection of these women?

Dawn Thandeka: I play Thandiwe with such ease because I understood Thandiwe’s background, her history, where she lives, where she comes from and what happened to her with regards to her pregnancy. I wanted her to represent as many women as possible. I took stories that I already knew from my childhood or from people I met and I combined all of those experiences, in relation to the fact that I am a mother. I also used some of the parenting skills my grandmother and mother had, that is where the strictness comes from. I had to do a combination of a few people and observe characters from Diepsloot in terms of dress code and characteristics.

Vele: I had to take my time on that because we are two different people. As much as she is a part of me, there’s nothing about her that is me. I have not gotten to the point where I could say we are the same person, but I know how to step into her shoes. In fact we have little similarities, we have a big age difference and we have a different life experience. In as much as she lives in me, I have not had the experience that we are fully connected.

Lebohang Mpyana: I found her on the first day. When I read the synopsis for Khelina, I immediately thought of my aunt because of how Khelina behaves. She behaves exactly like my aunt, the loudness, the craziness, the way she dresses, everything. Khelina is very caring and a hustler. She fights to not be like other women in DiepCity and grabs any opportunity she can to progress her life.

John-Otto: Dawn, while we were snapping pictures you asked for different props that connect the character: candle, a bible and spectacles, what do these props say about the character?

Dawn Thandeka: I asked for the props because these are the props that Thandiwe uses. The Bible helps her find solace and comforts her because she lost her son. She is a praying woman and she is a prayer warrior. She prays her pain away and reads her Bible to bury herself in it. As for the spectacles, she uses them to read, even though she can see. I infused them as an add on for myself and I thought it would be nice for her to have. These are the things we usually respect in a home, when your mother’s glasses and Bible are in their place, you don’t touch them. When she prays, she lights a candle, these are all the things that bring her comfort and hope, especially since her son’s death.

John-Otto: What are the common challenges that these DiepCity Queens face which are common to many other South African women in different settings?

Dawn Thandeka: The common thing among the DiepCity Queens is the sense of wanting to be independent. Wanting to go out there and get it for themselves. They are hard workers. The common goal is for them to be independent and to be the breadwinner. If you look at most of them, they are the ones bringing the bread home and the men are not. Even if the men bring the bread home, it is very minimal. The women find themselves having to work extra hard. I think this is what many women in South Africa and the world can identify with. Women have become hustlers and hard workers. This is not to take away from men, but women have stopped the mentality that men should be the breadwinners and have started playing their part. I admire all the Queens in DiepCity because they all hustle. In the hustle there’s hurt, there’s pain but there’s also triumph and excitement. It’s beautiful to watch.

John-Otto: Maureen’s storyline takes us through different themes, acceptance and Colourism. Colourism has been a heated topic for over 200 years and is still very relevant today. What do you hope this storyline sparks in people that might not be affected by this topic?

Vele: Colourism is very relevant because we have people that are currently using cosmetics to look lightskin. As much as people might say it is an old topic, it is still prevalent in reality and it has not gone away for all those years.

John-Otto: What do you think persuaded Maureen to make herself palatable for her husband? Does Zola have something to do with it?

Vele: It’s not about Zola being a light skin woman. Maureen does not want to be light because Zola is light. Maureen wants to be light because that is what her husband likes and she wants to keep her husband. She’s going through a mental confusion. She is at a point where she believes her marriage will be resolved by becoming what her husband desires. She is willing to do anything for her man. More than anything, she is going through mental distress because of her husband. What people do not know about her is that she is very spiritual and has a deep connection with Mgedeza. She has not had a lot of experience with men and the type of love Mgedeza has given her. She strongly believes in having a home because she did not grow up in a home. So whatever it takes, she gets the strength to pull it together because she knows her husband’s heart. It’s bigger than the situation and she knows that. It is not enough for some to just tell her to leave the type of love she has received from her husband because it’s the type of love no one knows. Having a family has always been her dream and she will stop at nothing to get that. That is what she wants in life.

John-Otto: How would you say Maureen’s struggle with colourism affects the Acting industry and actors in their personal capacity?

Vele: There are similarities and the similarities are the common ones. In reality and on screen, you will find a preference towards light skin. This preference comes with more benefits for lighter skinned people than darker skinned people. I have gone through situations, as an actor, where a lighter skinned girl would be cast instead of me. In my opinion, it does not always have to do with talent but about the look.

John-Otto: Considering the heavy issues Maureen is and has gone through. How do you shed yourself of Maureen’s energy and emotions after a long day on set, especially after emotional storylines?

Vele: It is tough. Sometimes you do not process the character’s thoughts when you get off set. You do not immediately practice detachment because emotions are bigger than us and take a while to get out of our systems, which means you are still carrying your character when you get home. What helps me is to get out of Maureen’s wig, take off the gold teeth and get into my own clothes. The moment I take off those grills, I am back. On a serious note, it takes a lot of work, it’s not just a click of a finger and it happens, especially when it has to do with emotions. The storyline Maureen is going through now is highly emotional and I have personally experienced some of the topics she will be tackling. This makes it tougher to remove myself at times but at the end of the day I am an actor not the character, so that will take first priority.

John-Otto: Lebohang, in the world of drama, Khelina helps us detach. How would you describe the importance of having comic relief characters like Khelina?

Lebohang: I think it is important to have characters like Khelina because of the comedic relief they bring. The audience cannot be stuck in the world of being hurt. Characters like Khelina change the tone of the story so that the drama is not monotonous. Even though the audience might be sad, they can at least expect Khelina to bring something juicy and fun.

John-Otto: What makes Khelina fun and relatable?

Lebohang: She has become familiar in many ways. Khelina represents what the audience sees and experiences on a daily basis. Keeping in mind that Khelina is a local, the audience knows her, they live with her and that is why people relate to the way she behaves and carries herself.

John-Otto: The DiepCity set is literally a recreation of Diepsloot, the set build is interesting because it’s so real. What are some of the great things around shooting on a recreated set/location as opposed to a real location or studio for you as an Actor?

Vele: The simplest answer is that it makes it easier to walk into the shoes of the characters. The set does most of the work for you because you are already stepping into the life of Diepsloot. By just walking on that set, you are already halfway there with your acting. Everything on set encourages you, from the corrugated iron to the Mbowla. Everything feels real. In the studio, you have to constantly detach yourself from knowing that it’s not a real world. We are confined to our 3 walls, that can be moved and changed but here the world is set and we come into that setting as characters.

Dawn Thandeka: Our set is a replica of Diepsloot and it’s a beautiful replica. A lot of hard work has gone into building our set. I appreciate what Black Brain has done and the fact that it reflects a society that is looked down upon. It almost has a theatrical feel to it and I love that because that is where I began. I was born on the stage, I am a thespian and I am a theatre child. The set we have now is very theatrical and it brings that memory of being in theatre. It brings in a different light to the character, where you want to be a woman who lives in Diepsloot, in a shack. There’s nothing about Dawn, Thandiwe is not Dawn. Thandiwe has to behave like a woman that lives in Diepsloot. The set assists the characters to portray the story honestly. The character I am playing now is a first of its kind, I have never played a character who lives in a shack. I appreciate that Thandiwe has a shack for a house, which is a life I have never lived. That is why it was important for me to be around Diepsloot and observe the characteristics of people that live there. It doesn’t mean that because you live in a shack, you’re going to go out looking shady. People that live in Diepsloot take care of themselves, look beautiful and clean their shacks. Even though you do not have the fancy things, you clean and take care of what you have. That is what I love about Thandiwe’s shack, it’s clean and she tries to make do with what she has.

John-Otto: Dawn and Lebohang what story dynamics can viewers look forward to with your characters?

Lebohang: Khelina already has children that she left at home but I hope she could have children with Ringo. She had troubles with the father of her children but I can see that Ringo truly makes her happy. She has never found a man that loves her as much as Ringo. Men from her past just used her and disregarded her. Khelina’s relationship with Ringo is still private, though I hope he can be the love of her life. I want their love affair to be public so that they can start a family.

Dawn King: I have taken a while off work because of the injury (with my leg), so I do not know what the writers, producers and directors have in store for Thandiwe, I am yet to find out. One thing that I wish for Thandiwe is to reconnect with her daughter. I would like it if that relationship could be repaired so that Nox feels like she is making her mother proud. She keeps trying to impress her mother but nothing impresses Thandiwe, she’s just a hard nut to crack. That is my wish, but I do not know what the plans for Thandiwe are.

John-Otto: Vele, what has this journey on DiepCity meant for you as an actor?

Vele: I honestly never expected it. I got the call for this role and I was very grateful that they thought of me for this role. The kind of issues my character has had to go through in DiepCity have been a slap of reality. I am grateful that I have had to go through real life experiences with Maureen that I have never had to go through in my own life. I am grateful that I am able to participate in storylines that are life changing and that are happening out there. Being on DiepCity has been amazing. I am working with amazing people and a beautiful cast that is able to give 120%. It is a blessing, I love it and I get to be part of a whole DiepCity.

This was a real, honest conversation with genuine laughs and moments of true reflection, Black Brain has done well to bring us this world that is DiepCity and the cast have honoured this, it’s quite evident through the performances from all cast members, the 4 leads (Ama wrong Turn), the mothers and sisters, no character is too small, the impact is felt and seen.

Such productions with strong women owning their own spaces is exciting to see. We look forward to sharing in many more beautiful moments with the #DiepCityQueens.

Catch DiepCity weekly @ 20:30 on Mzansi Magic 161

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