Art

South African actress moved Kitfest audience to tears

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South African actor Kekeletso Matlabe. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

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Summary

  • “Glenda’s story still makes me weep,” said Keke during the Q&A that followed her heart-wrenching performance at Kenya National Theatre.
  • This wasn't the first time Keke had scripted and staged a story about women.

Out of all the performances I was able to see during the ten-day Kenya International Theatre Festival (KITFEST) at Kenya Cultural Centre, none was more breath-taking or more brutally honest than the one staged by South African actor Kekeletso Matlabe.

Chronicles of a Whore’ was ‘Keke’s one-woman show based on the true story of Glenda, a sex worker who she’d met while researching her final theatrical project to present to her mentors at the world-renowned Market Theatre Lab in Johannesburg.

“Glenda’s story still makes me weep,” said Keke during the Q&A that followed her heart-wrenching performance at Kenya National Theatre.

“Normally, I don’t stay after a performance of this piece since it takes so much out of me emotionally, I need time alone to unwind,” she confessed to BDLife.

She made an exception last Thursday night since her audience clamored to learn more about how she’d shaped and scripted Glenda’s tragic story, a classic and cruel case of sexual violence.

Glenda had been raped at age 7 and then again at age 9, each time by different uncles. Her life had essentially gone downhill from there. But Keke managed to gain Glenda’s trust, first by speaking to her in her mother tongue, Tswana, and then spending time listening to all the graphic and painful details of her life with empathy and nonjudgmental understanding.

This wouldn’t be the first time Keke had scripted and staged a story about women. Growing up in a small town in the Free State, she had performed in many school and church plays. But it was one called ‘Sisterhood’ about four best friends, that got her a three-year scholarship at the Market Theatre Lab in Johannesburg.

Coming from a family of educators and churchmen, they had been pleased when she got a degree in accounting but rejected the idea of her having a career in acting.

“I told them I’m happiest when I’m on stage. I told them I’m a storyteller and that is who I am,” she said, and off she went to Johannesburg.

Following those three glorious years at the Market Theatre Lab, being mentored by some of South Africa’s greatest performers, Keke stayed on for seven more years performing at the Market Theatre as well as at the Soweto Theatre and the Johannesburg Civic Theatre.

“My accounting skills also came in handy when I worked the front-of-house, taking tickets and keeping track of membership and sales,” she said.

Currently, back in her hometown in the Free State, Keke has a number of gigs going at once. Her main one is as artistic director of the Bokamoso Art Centre which was started by one of the original stars in the South African stage performance of The Lion King, Sello Molefi. “Sello is still performing Lion King, but he’s now based in Australia. He essentially left the Centre to me,” Keke says.

It hasn’t been easy, especially as her village isn’t a hotbed of contemporary culture. Nonetheless, through a program that came out of the Market Theatre, supported by the International Arts Organization, ASSTEJ, Keke became a certified ‘facilitator’ who travels to schools and facilitates art programs both for students, as well as for their teachers.

“We cover everything from dance, drama, and music to visual arts, film, video, and fundraising,” adds Keke who just recently returned from a six-month film training course in Johannesburg.

“Having been trained as an actor, it was fascinating to learn more about directing,” says Keke who has already begun writing scripts for film.

She barely completed that course when it was time to come to Kenya for KITFEST. “I had been invited by Kevin [Kimani, the KITFEST founding father] in 2019 but it was too late for me to make it that year,” she said. “Then came COVID in 2020, but I was determined to make it this year,” she adds.

The problem was her country’s Ministry of Sports, Arts, and Culture. It cancelled her air ticket at the last minute, so Keke was left stranded. What to do?

Fortunately, she was able to conduct several poetry fundraisers, performing her own poems and inviting other spoken-word poets to share at open mic sessions at her Centre. Finally, her family chipped in to help her buy a round-trip ticket for R12, 600.

It was a challenge for her to make it here. But as the other South Africa company, Intokozo Theatre Productions couldn’t get visas in time, it was only Keke who represented a thriving theatre scene currently underway in her country. And she did it very well!