I’m still my voice within the many other voices.”
Napo Masheane has been in the performance scene since the early 2000s. This theatre practitioner and poet has performed on stages around the world including Botswana, Zimbabwe, Italy, Netherlands. When I first started sharing my poetry, Napo was one of the young voices that frequented the poetry events around Johannesburg. I remember her specifically from the Timbila Poetry Sessions organised by Vonani Bila and featuring established poets like the Botsotso Jesters, Myesha Jenkins, June Madingoane and others.
Through the years, Napo has honed and sharpened her skills making her one of strongest voices of our generation. With one foot in theatre and another in poetry one might think she may struggle to juggle the two worlds but Napo says she was a poet before she went into theatre.
When I meet her on an afternoon, in May at the Market Lab in Newtown, she’s in rehearsals for a short run of Colours of the Diaspora. The theatre is a hive of activity but Napo takes a little break to talk about her work and what inspires her.
She grew up writing, reading and living in stories. So what came first? The answer is not as simple because she trained as an actor before being affirmed as a poet.
She was still a student at Fuba participating in an arts exchange program with Swedish performers at the turn of the century when part of her script was taken by one of the teachers to Vonani Bila. A week later, Vonani asked to meet her wanting to publish her scripts as poems. This affirmation, built her confidence. She started to share her work at poetry sessions all around Johannesburg and through sharing it has grown as a poet.
Another aspect that Napo feels it “guarantees your growth” is collaboration. Napo keeps collaborating and sharing her work through cultural exchanges. Even as we meet for this interview she’s collaborating with American poet and choreographers Kharyshi Wiginton and Chinyere Tutashindi and South African Deborah Leshika. For Napo, the people you work with influence your voice as a performer and a writer and your own style grows.
Napo’s style is very Afrocentric, as she draws from her South African experience and writes in both English and Sesotho, but she can make it work anywhere in the world. “I’m still my voice within the many other voices.” After collaborating, “I don’t get stuck in one thing,” because she always learns about music, movement, other forms of poetry. She feels that when working alone, we end up doing the same poem in different ways. The Napo she was at Timbila Poetry session in the early 2000s is different from the Napo we know see because of all that she’s learnt from her collaborators and the nurturing support that takes place even after the project is done.
She tells how her long time collaborator, Kharyshi Wiginton, who Napo affectionately calls Khaya, would send her books and questionnaires to read and do research on the issues she’s going to tackle in her scripts. The right collaborator will push you to be better than you are. That has made her work more global even when she writes about a South African experience.
“Even when I teach young artists, I tell them that they should open themselves up [to new experiences]. They shouldn’t just say I’ve studied Shakespeare or East African Theatre history [and that’s it]. Study everything and within that find your own voice. It makes you more outstanding.”
Napo was born in Soweto but grew up in Qwaqwa. In Qwaqwa, acting was not seen as a career. She explains that even though there was TV, careers in the arts or entertainment were seen as something that’s too far and out of reach for them. But even with that, Napo was drawn to words and stories. She lived in books, “My father as a teacher and my mother a storyteller.” So when she heard the stories of Tselane, her fascination grew.
The video tapes that her father brought home of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Bruce Lee films and others were her source of inspiration. But she didn’t see herself in these stories and that made her want to be in those stories. She wanted to be the first Black ninja girl.
“Even if I didn’t know that there was theatre or that a person could make a living from it, I always lived in dreams and created my own world.” Moving to cosmopolitan, newly post-Apartheid, Hillbrow where neighbours were celebrities from Sarafina, Bophelo Ke Sephekgo, suddenly the world that seemed so far away and unreal was right there in front of her and real. She realised that her dream world was possible. Finding out that people could make a living from this made her sure that she wanted to be a performer
However, her mother wanted her to get a real career. She went with Marketing because she ended up applying at the last minute and there was nothing else she was willing to settle for.
“When I graduated I took the certificate home to my parents and said, ‘that’s yours, now I’m gonna do me’” She wanted to walk, sleep and eat a creative live. She had already started interacting with the performance scene at Kippies and Market Theatre. Having satisfied her parents, Napo was ready to pursue something that she wanted passionately. Her passion however, has never been about being famous but clearly about telling authentic stories that don’t only represent one part of society. As Napo started to find her way in the creative industry, she noticed that there weren’t many women voices and life in Johannesburg had taught her a lot about politics and so she began to fill that void with her own work.
My Bum Is Genetic, So Deal With It! (2006)was her first solo performance. With Feela Sista she was starting to make money through poetry but felt a part of herself not fully realised on stage. “I’m a poet but I realised that I’m in both worlds – theatre and poetry. I couldn’t just stop Feela Sista and say, ‘I’m directing you now.’”
She wanted to do theatre so she started to build on her ideas and issues around her body – “I have a problem when I shop, I can’t fit into skinny jeans. And people were like, “which Napo, the one with the big bum’” So she shared her ideas with her long time collaborator, Khaya. She presented her pieces when she went for an audition for AfroVibes at Marketing Theatre. The panel included the late John Matshikiza, who gave her his business card because he felt she had an amazing concept. He told her about Sara Baartman and told her to research and build on the pieces she had presented. After a two month research and development process, she took a script back to John Matshikiza and he loved it. I didn’t have money to pay him but he said, “Who said anything about money?” With John Matshikiza as director, Napo then built a landmark piece and performed it against the Picasso in Africa exhibition in 2006. “That was it, 15 minutes turned into 30 minutes and so on,” she says.
Body politics, women’s voices have been an important part of her work. As a starting point, it was easy because, as a woman, Napo can relate to other women and coming from a family of “big but healthy women” and meeting other women that have experienced their own body issues, the body politics conversation needed to start. And that’s the psyche that My Bum is Genetic, So Deal With It! tapped into.
Napo says, “Even if they are big, fat, huge, overweight,” she wanted to say “stop for a second and explore what brought these women to that place.” This a body of work that left many women feeling a lot more understood. Indeed understanding their own issues and just being able to laugh them off and feel better. Even though the conversation continues, Napo doesn’t want to box image, beauty, body issues into one box. She also doesn’t want to be boxed in by these issues. She says that’s not where she’s going to stop.
She feels that as a mother of a son who doesn’t have a relationship with his father, she can use her creative ability to start that conversation about boys, men, fathers. She has great male friends and she feels that her son can learn that not all men are ugly and bad. So she has been working on a play with five male characters titled Any Man is better than No Man. Napo is very clear that there are things that she’ll not be able to talk about as a woman, “If I talk about men issues, I can’t talk about circumcision, I’m not a man. I can’t talk about how men feel. But what I can do is symbolise the different types of men that I’ve come across – the father, a brother, an abuser, a gay guy and a hoebag – and put them on stage and ask ‘as a woman which man would you choose to have in your life?’”
“To say to my son and young boys that [when] my work focuses on women issues, my feminism, my activism it doesn’t mean I hate men. It means I want men to respect women. My opinion matters, my voice matters, I have something to say. I’m beyond you just wanting to sleep with me or invade me or rape me or beat me up. I’m more than those things. I could be your friend, I could be your sister, I could be your aunt. I’m your mother.” Napo speaks passionately about what she wants this play to represent. Just because this is about men, doesn’t mean that she’ll give this half her attention. Napo stresses that ultimately she also wants her son to know that there are different kinds of men and he needs to decide which one he is. She is taking her time with this script but, already, it’s something to look forward to.
Napo’s work has taken her to various places around the world. For Napo to collaborate and perform outside of South Africa has been a positive thing. Travelling the world made her realise that even if she writes about black women issues, once they are put on stage they are no longer just ‘black women issues’. They become everyone’s issues, every woman and man is affected despite their class or race.
“When I [perform] Bum, my point of reference is my people, black women and the African perspective, however, it doesn’t stop the European woman [in the audience] from saying ‘with her it’s her bum but with me it’s the breasts, the nose, the height… There is just something that every woman has an issue with regarding their bodies.” Even though her poetry is for and about women, men can also relate or get in touch with their feminine sides or realise that they can treat the women in their lives better. These are the universal conversations that Napo loves to spark with her poetry.
These universal conversations aren’t just about how Europe relates to Afrika but about how Afrika relates to itself. Being able to travel and connect, on a personal level, with poets from other places like Tanzania and then finding the similarities in the stories we hear as children she realised that “Africa is connected, we’re all the same people” So when she learnt about the Samburu, who are described as the ‘carriers of bags” because they are nomadic, and also known as the “north butterflies” that connected with her because she felt that baSotho also come from the North. In the subsequent poem, also titled Samburu, Napo talks about her people travelling from the North carrying their bags, their beat with their songs and stories and everything”. Learning about the Samburu showed her that she could honour the kings of the BaSotho and also the Sotho tribes BaRolong, BaKwena, BaThlaping BaThlakwana le BaKgatla because even if they are now separate tribes, they are siblings. This is what inspired a poem like Samburu.
Caves Speak in Metaphors (2007), her first self-published book is her legacy and about fulfilling a need to put her work on paper. As her first collection, it was part of her growth as a poet. Reflecting back on the experience, Napo can admit that some poems in that book aren’t that good. The experience, however, taught her to differentiate between poems that work well in performance but not as well in print. She remembers thinking, “If somebody takes this and analyses it, I’ll be in trouble.” Napo insists that, “It’s very important as a poet, or a writer to document your work. It’s like looking in the mirror. When you see your own reflection, you can see what needs to be sorted.” The process of publishing allowed her to see what was good and bad in her work.
With Fat Girls Songs for My Girlfriends (2011), Napo sees a lot of growth. The collection is smaller but she feels it is of a higher quality. In Fat Songs for My Girlfriends, she closes the chapter on body issues. The first book was mostly about identity and spiritually while Fat Songs is for the women in her life, her friends, her family. She was in her twenties when she wrote Caves Speak in Metaphors and in her thirties with Fat Songs for My Girlfriends. So her mind-set has changed, “These are songs that I’ve been listening to. I’ve been sharing these songs with my girlfriends.” She wanted to share them with the rest of us. The issues range from “the sadness of being in a fucked up relationship, or the sadness of a family that keeps silent about certain issues to being beautiful and amazing.”
Napo is consistently working, either performing in the country or elsewhere in the world and selling her books. There are poets that try and fail to make a living as a poet so Napo’s experience is definitely something up and coming poets can learn from. Even though she was studying to placate her parents, Napo’s Marketing studies have come in handy, since she’s a self-employed artist. Napo believes that her marketing management studies made her realise that “you can write the best play but if it doesn’t put bums on seats it’s a failure. You can be the most gifted writer but if you publish a book that doesn’t sell, then you have failed.” Brand building is very important.
“You have to build your brand so that people don’t have to look for you that far – they can google you and get a hold of you and buy your book even if they can’t find it from the big chain stores.” The blessing for Napo has been that as a performer she can take the risk of self-publishing because she has the ability to perform in other countries and take twenty books with her to sell after performing. This works because “when people have heard you, they want to keep a part of that experience, they want to walk away with that memory.” Some people don’t have that track record to rely on because she has built her brand. Napo is able to stage a show without any money because she can approach places like Market Theatre for a stage, and friends and long time collaborators like Khaya to work with.
Napo admits that it isn’t always easy but she decided that she didn’t want to be a poor artist. There have been days when she has been broke, when it’s been frustrating but being part of a community has helped. “After publishing Fat Songs, everyone has applauding me but I was completely depressed. I was sitting in my house with my savings gone and I couldn’t pay my bills” but her community of friends and collaborators rallied around her. Khaya said “I’ll come, we can do a show and you keep the door takings, Lebo said I’ll come MC for free and another friend catered for free, Makgano put money in my account. So it helps when you’re part of a community that affirms and believes in your work. But people will affirm and believe in your work if you reflect the values that they stand for. That’s part of branding. People will always want to be associated with your brand if your brand represents something.”
Napo says it’s important for poets to be business-minded. “Find your voice, make sure you know where you stand and what you stand for. Because if you’re all over then people don’t know what they are supporting.” Knowing what you stand for opens up doors “I want to be part of that community, part of that person’s shine and light. Even the business side becomes good and amazing.
“With the poetry scene growing into an industry, you can now find poetry in theatre, hear it in house music, there’s more published poetry now than ten years ago and poet can get paid through radio and tv adverts.” But Napo doesn’t believe that we’ve all cracked the business aspect.
“Today you can usher in a president, tomorrow you can write an article for O Mag and the following day you can come to State Theatre and do a production.”
When asked how she deals with having a writer’s block, Napo simply says, “I let it be.” At the time of the interview, she revealed that she hadn’t written for some weeks but that didn’t stress her at all. She doesn’t let herself get depressed. But rather sees it as a chance to do other things. For Napo the “writer’s block” is like being on leave, a break. She reads everything – She has books all over her house that she hasn’t finished so she reads or goes in search of new books “Writing is an act of expelling, emptying oneself,” she says it means that there are things that her mind needs to process, breakdown and think through. Napo stays busy focussing on acting, memorising lines from scripts, relearning her old poems and being an adjudicator watching theatre production and through all that she’s inspired again. She can write again.
“So just clean your house, your mental house. And once it’s clean it allows space for new things to come in and inspire you.”
Napo’s passion and discipline has moved her career to a place where many of us dream. It’s clear that one doesn’t succeed only by dreaming.
We look forward to seeing what Ms Masheane creates next.