Writer: Karabo Mokoena, Photographer: Henry Hansen , Creative Director: Ayanda Sithebe, Concept and Design: Lihle Ngubo, Production Team: John-Otto Phike, Rainy Nthangeni and Tshepo Marema, Makeup: Phumzile Mhlongo
It all felt like a song, with a melody so soft in its tone that it forces you to quiet the noise of the world and come back home to self. Nolwazi Shange was the lead singer and I was the back-up, a mere contributor to the showcase of her brilliance.
As creatives, one of our biggest blessings which we tend to take for granted is connection. There are moments that are meant to move our souls so deeply that we want to dig deep in search of our own prowess. And sitting down with Nolwazi Shange brought about that and more. I remember thinking about our conversation prior to our interaction and asking: “How does one capture the essence of her just generally as a human being but also give her the platform to shine as an all round creative who continues to show up incredibly in her craft?” This question made the whole process even more interesting for me but most importantly, it allowed me to search for her. There was a need to portray her in such a way that would fully encapsulate her presence. It was in the simplicity of the idea of existing in a space where you can do what you love and grow through that. It quickly became about nurturing her process of becoming.
It is a beautiful Sunday morning and we have all gathered around the studio preparing for the photoshoot. Everyone is in positive spirits, ready to immerse themselves in this moment. When Nolwazi arrives, she is on a call with her aunt who, she later tells us, really enjoys catching up. We lurk around the studio space waiting for her to finish her call, each of us not wanting to miss the opportunity to give her the grand welcome cheer in true Actor Spaces style. “Ni qoke i uniform! (You are all dressed in uniform)” she yells out, making fun of us all dressed in black in Actor Spaces apparel. We all erupt in laughter. The room is filled with sounds from her playlist as she makes her way through the studio. The playlist maintains a peaceful and vibrant aura around the room, ranging from Old school RnB jams to Joyous Celebration, Skwatta Kamp and Khuzani Mpungose’s “Ijele”.
It is one thing to speak of your truth and it is another thing to actually visualize it for yourself and live in it. Nolwazi carries a confidence that you can tell comes from a place of truth and a good knowledge of self. What we are witnessing, here, is someone with a true and consistent connection to self. Shange rose to prominence through her various performances in shows and films like A Place Called Home which she went on to win a SAFTA for, Otelo Burning, Mthunzini.com to name a few. And throughout the years, we have seen her become more and more involved within the creative space, fulfilling both onscreen and behind the scenes roles. She moves through the industry in such a way that is inspiring to many because she does not deprive herself from exploring her horizons.
After all the beauty has been captured, it is finally time for Nolwazi and I to sit down and dive into our conversation. I am nervous but I remember her words just moments before: “Nerves, such an awkward feeling. We all have them but for some reason we always think we’re the only ones” and I’m immediately comforted. She leans in, hands between her thighs and looks me deep in my eyes- I take this as a way of her inviting me into her mental, emotional and spiritual space. There is a hush around the room as we slowly ease ourselves into this preempted but also free verse in this melody.
Our conversation starts with a very detailed and personal anecdote of why therapy is important to her. “I did take a break from therapy for a while and then I had to make a very big decision in my life that I needed to talk through with someone but not with a friend or family and intentionally so because I was like, I don’t want additional noise. I wanted a sounding board, an objective voice/ear. So I recently went back to therapy and there’s quite a few sessions that are just me crying because there is a lot that you feel. In fact the whole thing was inspired by my daughter. She is fifteen and she was just like there’s a lot of things that we are facing as teenagers that I really would like to talk to someone about and I supported it 100% but it also really inspired me” Nolwazi speaks with passion and has moments of constant interrogation with her own thoughts. When she talks about her daughter, you can almost feel the pride that she carries and how much of an independent thinker she wants her to be.
We are only five minutes into the interview and it is all starting to make sense. In front of me, sits a woman who is indebted to her own evolution and one of her most important responsibilities is to give to herself, just as much as she gives to her craft, her motherhood and the various other facets that exist in her life because without her consistently pouring into herself, it would all not exist in the first place. The conversation about therapy was a diversion but a good and necessary one at that.
She maintains an openness throughout our interaction, still looking deep into my eyes and never leaning back to the chair. I feel obliged to give her the same presence so as to meet her where she is. I go on to ask her how her week was, really. “My week was actually tough. I had a tough week. I am just also going through a rough transition phase within myself. You know when you make tough decisions, there’s the freedom that comes with it but there’s also the regret- there’s a sadness that also comes with it as well. So it is just that balance between the two but at the same time- I was having a conversation with Auntie Glad, a helper at my house and I was saying to her that I am incredibly proud of myself. I am filled with immense pride in myself to be where I am. It is difficult but it is one of those processes that I would look back on in my life and be like: ‘Yeah man, that was the right thing to do’ so that’s essentially how my week was. While all of that stuff is happening, I am also getting calls for work. There’s a role that I auditioned for and didn’t get it and then randomly I was called to say ‘Actually, we have decided to go with you.’” She takes this in, I can tell that she is piecing it together for herself at that moment. Then she goes on to say “And that is all happening in this tough week right? Then you see that life is really what you make of it.”
“Generally, as a person, I am so hopeful. I believe in myself so much and I generally believe that all the seeds of God, The Universe, my Ancestors that are planted in me will come to life, they will come to fruition. I just need to align with myself and my purpose and be consistent” she says. She begins to paint a picture of her childhood to elaborate on her point. “I was raised by my grandparents who taught us to have our own backs, to listen to our own voices and to be proud of our voices, to make decisions that are right for us, to learn to shut out the noise and focus on what is important to us and not be afraid. And they also taught us that sometimes choosing yourself might not be the popular choice, it might cause people to dislike you and that is okay- that at the same time, you gain a lot of favor by being yourself.”
As we immerse ourselves deeper into this interaction, it becomes clear that the idea of authenticity really resonates with her on many levels. I ask Nolwazi to describe three significant objects from her childhood, the significance of which she explains. One, her library card. “I grew up in Clermont, Durban and the nearest suburb was Pinetown so I had a library card for the Pinetown Library. I was introduced to reading at a very young age by my grandfather. He was a Reader’s Digest subscriber, in fact there was a massive book shelf that had a plethora of books that you could just go wild and read about whatever. It was just about maintaining the idea of having an inquiring mind.” She rolls her eyes up, searching her mind for the next object. She leans in then slightly back and finally snaps her fingers and says “Okay, wait! TV Game” she chuckles slightly. “So, my grandparents used to buy my cousins and I TV Games and that was family time. We would just chill and play TV Games for hours. I mean, it would annoy my grandparents because now we are not doing anything- sometimes not bathing and whatever because we are playing TV Games- but they really instilled the love and passion for family and being together.” She smiles and dotes about how extremely fond the memory is to her. Onto searching again, this time for her third object. “Oh, so growing up I was an athlete- I used to specialize in a 100 meters so there were a whole lot of trophies at home and they are still there even the trophies for debating are still there. It was just like that search for excellence, the value of working hard and pushing yourself and then seeing the results. So that reminder all the time, even when I go home and still see the trophies, that I am actually capable of so much and this is what hard work actually does”
Nolwazi describes herself as an excellence or nothing type of girl. “If you are going to arrive anywhere, deliver at your most best!” she says. Shange is a Durban University of Technology graduate and as such has been immersed in the world of performance for a long time. However she describes her trajectory into the world of creativity as one that came to her through her background in and love for music. “I started off as a singer. I come from a family of musicians. The Shange family is mostly made up of musicians. My grandmother was a choir conductor. My grandparents had 10 children and they were all a part of a group- they used to sing together. My grandfather was also in the church choir so I grew up around music so that is what I knew first. I cannot remember when I started acting or when I fell in love with acting. Everyone thought I would be a singer.”
From Precious to Dezi, Ntombi and many other phenomenal roles, Nolwazi has managed to maintain a range that really puts her up there as one of the best performers. Her recent role saw her playing the character of Mbali Khubeka on Scandal!– who had viewers on the edge of their seat with her desperate ploys. When I ask her about the evolution of the characters she has played over time she says “The characters I played, starting out, were very much the love interests- so that consisted of following and reacting. Then stories like The Queen and The River came about, where the stories were told from the women’s perspective and I remember going nuts about that. I am like ‘it is about damn time!’ We have our own stories to tell. I know that our stories need to mirror society but at the same time, we have the power to shape society- the power to provide direction and when we give voices to women and tell honest stories in terms of their own plight and what they are experiencing then that becomes amazing.”
“With Scandal!, I was incredibly excited because this is a woman whose story is very much rooted in desperation, this is a woman who wanted, desperately, to give her husband a child- who wanted to have a family she never had where you have a father, mother and child living under the same roof. She did go to extreme lengths to try and achieve that which I found a bit hilarious sometimes but she has 100% in control over her story- how she wanted to tell it, how she wanted to evolve in it, who she wanted to include or exclude. It was in every essence, her story. It wasn’t a story that was told through the eyes of her husband or in reaction to what her husband was doing, it was her saying ‘This is what I want and I am going to get it at all costs.’”
We are now in that part of the Melody that has us both immersed in what seems and feels like the perfect rhythm. The part where you feel involved in something. We are both comfortable here. A “There is a reason we are but we can’t put our fingers on it” type of moment. The pitch- not high but low and we are content with it just as it is. I ask: “One word to describe this chapter of your life?” She takes a deep breath, does not think too hard about it and says “100% Rebirth” Something hijacks her thoughts “Wow, I didn’t realize this” she says in what seems like a shocking revelation for her. “So when I was going through therapy, I used to describe it a lot as, you know that moment when the snake is shedding its skin? That’s what it felt like- that I was peeling off layers of me and it was incredibly painful. I felt that when I started, I was completely removed from who I was, who I am supposed to be and I don’t know, I just morphed into something else. And, I think this is definitely a rebirth in many ways. I started a career in a different industry altogether- the Tech industry then came back into acting after a good number of years. I hadn’t acted at all and everything about it felt so right. I was also so shocked but incredibly grateful that so many years later, there are people who appreciate my work but more than anything, I think I was appreciative of the moment because I know what it was like when I was not doing it and how that made me feel.”
She goes on to tell me that she started acting when she was in her early 20’s and had her first big show, A Place Called Home. It was quite prominent and received incredibly well. The show won a SAFTA then she went on to Soul City and that was a big one as well “Akin Omotoso was the director for both shows and I remember that with Soul City, I was getting a bit caught in the hype, like ‘Oh, I’m here. I have arrived’ and I was not paying attention as much as I should have on set, I’m busy on my phone. And I vividly remember, Akin pulling me aside and having a conversation with me and was like ‘Yo, fam. You need to bring yourself back here. You are here to work, you have to remember what you are here for and what you are committed to. You can’t ever get too big for this and it is a conversation I will never forget. It meant so much to me that it is very much a big part of my work ethic today.”
She finally drives her point home by saying,“So, the phase that I am in now, is just about rebirth- about my voice being heard and about living life the way I want to. It is about being intentional and recognizing that all of these moments were in preparation of this. And also taking care of Nolwazi first. I realize that I need to come first, even before my children- I can’t be a good mother if I am not taking care of myself. And it is not selfish for me to say, ‘this is what I need.’”
We are beginning to fall into the final verse of this mellow melody when I ask her what winning the SAFTA meant to her. “So, when it happened for me, I was still a very new face in the industry. I had done possibly two shows and the first one, I was just a character endlulayo nje (just passing by) and then the second one was A Place Called Home and that is the one I won a SAFTA for. And I think that is when I was noticed. Like, ‘Okay, there is this new girl’. It definitely says something about you- it makes people notice you. It makes people look you up, you know what I mean? Even if they did not watch you, they get curious about you and that makes them want to go and watch. I, personally, think it is important. It also just makes you feel good. As people, we really do not stop and tap ourselves on our shoulders when we’re doing so I definitely think these kinds of acknowledgements are important because of that”
A short story: You open Nolwazi Shange’s instagram and are met with titles like “SAFTA Winning Actor, Casting Director, Producer, Tik Tok Music Partnerships Manager and Mother of Africazi Media. Then you come back to this article and see the words “I feel like, I am only getting started now” from Nolwazi herself. You are either shocked or fascinated but either way, you are interested to know why. “I still very much feel like I am learning. I feel like I am at the beginning of my career. There is still so much I would like to achieve. I have not directed or produced my first TV Show yet. I have not created my own work. So, I still feel like I am only just starting out as a creative. I am more excited now just looking at how the industry has grown. When I started, be ku ngena ngisho ne Facebook. Our digital media has grown so much and now there are more opportunities for me to be seen but there are also more opportunities for me to be criticized so how do I navigate? How do I still remain true to who I am and tell stories the way that I want to tell them? So, I am still very much a novice. I am still figuring it out and I hope to feel like this for the rest of my life. I hope to always be excited by it all.”
One last verse and we will be out of your way. We are very consistent, keen eyes and body language still in it. I tell Nolwazi that I have two more questions left. “What does the discovery of purpose look like for you?” I ask. A hush falls on us for a few seconds (it feels longer)- it is just the two of us in this corner at the studio. She takes another one of what I would describe as her “insightful” breaths. “Wow. I don’t know what it looks like. I know what it feels like. It feels like freedom.” She begins to tear up. I catch my breath. “It feels like freedom” she repeats these words and nods her head assuringly. “When this universe plants a seed in you, it plants it with the absolute trust that you have the ability to achieve it. It trusts you. And we deviate from that, from purpose by not trusting ourselves and not trusting that seed that is planted because when you do trust it, things just fall into place, I don’t know how but I genuinely believe that when you are living in your purpose, the universe conspires for you. The universe will open parts for you. Your impact will be spoken about for years to come. People will see it and it doesn’t matter how many, the people who are supposed to see it will see it.”
She catches her breath. “Right now, I am feeling the most free I have ever felt in a long time. I feel like I am at the right place at the right time for everything even if it’s wrong. Everything I am doing is happening exactly as it should. I can choose.Right now in my life with everything that is shifting and changing around me, I feel the most connected with myself” She nods, takes a deep breath and smiles.
What a graceful melody. Nolwazi Shange is a phenomenal performer. However, her words are a constant reminder that who we are as creatives and how we immerse ourselves in that space is quite closely tied to who we are as emotional beings. This is more than just an account on the accolades that Nolwazi carries and her as a creative, instead, it a grounding pull towards the fact that there is a base to all the excellence that everyone gets to see and that base is the self and it is very necessary to come back home to that in order to grow.