Growing up in the Botswanan border village of Ramotswa, Phala Ookeditse Phala recalls that “the section of the village we lived in was quite stony so running and playing football were not ideal”. As an asthma sufferer, Phala was not really made for sports, which he found “quite tedious”. So when a trainee teacher at his primary school gave him a part in The Merchant of Venice, he was bit by the theatre bug, which would shape the course of his life.
He didn’t understand all the words, but he knew from that young age that he “liked being in front of people and embodying a character who wasn’t me. I felt like I was hiding in front of people in plain sight because they were seeing someone I was portraying as opposed to seeing me. For me, that double effect was interesting. It felt like the nearest thing to ‘abracadabra’, and it felt like I was doing something extraordinary in that kind of way.”
Phala’s parents were political exiles. His father was a member of uMkhonto WeSizwe and the family house had always been home to ANC and PAC refugees from neighbouring South Africa. Phala was raised with a keen understanding of apartheid and the political realities of the time.
At first, his parents thought his theatre bug “was something that would go away, as every parent hopes. They thought I would eventually leave it behind and then, when I didn’t, it became a little bit of a problem.”
After completing his national service in Botswana in the late 1990s, Phala joined an industrial-theatre company. “I didn’t think I was doing industrial theatre; I was just doing theatre. It didn’t matter that it was theatre that I was doing for HIV or road safety — theatre was theatre,” he says. After several years working in this field, he made a conscious choice to pursue theatre studies at Wits University. “I saw something that I could make a career out of eventually.”