The Zulu storyteller

After 27 years, Mbongeni Ngema has returned to the stage with a captivating story of Zulu history. The South African star speaks to Clare Wiley

Mbongeni Ngema is something of a legend in South African theatre. As a playwright and director, he’s been honoured with a string of accolades and is the writing talent behind award-winning productions such as Sarafina! and Woza Albert!.

But for almost 30 years Ngema’s acting career took a backseat, until he made a long-awaited return to the stage last year, to perform in his own work The Zulu. It’s a quietly powerful one-man play, based around stories from the Zulu people and inspired by Ngema’s childhood in rural Zululand.

‘The inspiration for the work was my great grandmother,’ Ngema says on the phone from South Africa. ‘When I was child, she used to sit with me around the fire and tell me beautiful stories about the Zulu people, and the great wars that were fought on Zulu soil. Her husband was one of the warriors who fought in the great Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. It’s a story that has lived with me since childhood. I’ve wanted to tell this story all my life.’

The Zulu
Mbongeni Ngema in The Zulu

Why has Ngema chosen to stage the work now? ‘I feel it’s the time to pay tribute to my great-grandmother and her storytelling. She died in 1972, and I felt this was the right time for myself, as a mature writer and actor, to tell this tale and try to remember how she used to tell these stories to me. I’m also a keen African historian, as well as playwright. So these are the kinds of stories that always ignite my imagination.’

Ngema says he wanted his return to acting to be on a truly compelling work, and something he’d written himself. ‘Over the past few decades I’ve been training actors and directing other people in my place. So when I was sure that I wanted to do this work, it became exciting for me as an actor. That came alive again. I knew this was the material I wanted to handle myself. Because this story is so dear to me and so close to me, I felt like I could not have done [it] justice if I had to explain it to another actor. I had to get my hands dirty.’

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The Zulu had its premiere at the 2013 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, followed by runs in Zululand, Swaziland, Pretoria and Johannesburg. Ngema says the play has received standing ovations at every outing; its appeal, he believes, is its simplicity and theatricality.

The production prompted leading arts critic Caroline Smart to comment: ‘The Zulu… proves without doubt that, after his absence from actual stage performances for many years, he’s still got what it takes to be a compelling and vigorous actor and storyteller.’

The Zulu
The Zulu

The Zulu runs at Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 2-10 and 12-25 August. ‘It’s always been my wish to tell this story to South African audiences, but also to audiences in the United Kingdom specifically,’ says Ngema. ‘Because it’s both our histories: it’s the history of South Africa, yet the battle of Isandlwana, in particular, is also the history of the Scottish people. It will be interesting for me to see how they respond to their own history. Our histories are intertwined by this story.’

Ngema is descended from the warriors Mbandama and Sigcwelegcwele kaMhlekehleke of the Ngema clan who led the Ingobamakhosi regiment, which defeated the British armies at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879.