Momo Matsunyane
Momo Matsunyane
Image: Supplied

Performer, playwright, director and 2023 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre, Momo Matsunyane’s confidence commands a room. But it is the kind of confidence that is accommodating. In the rehearsal room for her 2024 National Arts Festival (NAF) (which happnes on June 20 -30) showcase — a play called Ka Lebitso La Moya — everyone’s voice matters, as ideas and notes on the right emotion and the technicalities of choreographing action on stage are shared. It’s a playful work environment, reminiscent of what Matsunyane wrote on her matric year book as her parting words: “Drama is about making a fool out of yourself and not being embarrassed about it, pretty much like life.”

This perspective on life and drama has surely changed for the 35-year-old.

“I’m older now and what I’m realising is that it’s become a lot harder to forgive myself. I’m hard on myself when I make mistakes, unlike my nonchalant younger self. Drama, particularly with live performance, is a one take. And I constantly remind myself that I’m here now and in life, like in drama, you have one shot at this. You also have to be present and, in the moment, like in a stage performance,” Matsunyane said.

She has won several awards, most recent for Hlakanyana The Musical which she co-wrote and performed in. The production, directed by Janice Honeyman for the University of Joburg, won eight out of the 14 awards they were nominated for at the 2023 Naledi Theatre Awards. Matsunyane won Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her role, along with Best Ensemble and Best Production of a Musical. Other awards include Best Ensemble for Neil Coppen’s exceptional adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm for the 2015 Naledi Theatre Awards; and Best Actress in a Leading Role in Gcina Mhlophe’s Have You Seen Zandile for the 2014 Naledi Theatre Awards.

Matsunyane’s involvement as co-director in the award-wining 2015 play Tau by Thabiso Rammala was unprecedented. The play interrogated the gender politics in the male circumcision rite of passage for young men, for which knowledge is traditionally taboo for women, boys and those outside the culture. Matsunyane’s presence in the production was questioned by traditionalists. But it is precisely because she is a woman that she was invited to mediate conversations on the production’s probe into the ritual’s flaws and link to gender violence.

Each work leaves an imprint and for Matsunyane they’re a reminder to lean into her strengths and trust her voice.

“Productions meet you where you need to be challenged. You’ll always find yourself going through something during a play. And that play is what will help you see it through. That’s the spirituality of the work that we do,” she said.

“Artists are insecure and need validation. But I have good instincts and I lean into those. I’m confident. I can feel vulnerable or insecure but I’m very confident in what I do. I work well with people and enjoy that, because I don’t see myself above the process. I’m in servitude and that’s what keeps me connected to people in a genuine way.”

Momo Matsunyane (left) and Zesuliwe Hadebe in Neil Coppen's stage adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm
Momo Matsunyane (left) and Zesuliwe Hadebe in Neil Coppen's stage adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm
Image: Supplied

She has achieved what she has through collaborations and partnerships that paid off; and most of it as an independent theatre maker. Finding herself with no work as a Wits Honours Degree graduate in Dramatic Arts and no opportunities from mainstream theatres, she formed a collective called The Thenx Ladies with friends Zethu Dlomo-Mphahlele, Kitty Moepang and Boitumelo Motsoatsoe. Through their performances they create safe spaces for uncomfortable life stories and politics. Matsunyane highlights the importance of independent theatre spaces such as PopArt, Joburg Theatre’s Space.Com; TX Theatre and the defunct The Platform for embracing her ideas and giving her work a home. It took self-belief and hard work to make it as an independent theatre maker.   

On the stories she gravitates to and their intention, she says, “I love black people and our stories. I come from a home of actors and filmmakers, so storytelling has been a big part of my life. My father would make me watch films (some politicised) every Saturday and asked for my thoughts afterwards. From a young age my family harnessed in me the ability to speak back to things.”

“The black condition, the history of blackness and white supremacy are topics I have been drawn to from a young age and I gravitate towards them to address the injustices of the world as an artist. With drama I seek to inspire critical conversations. As a black woman, my stories will always come from a black female-centred narrative. The play Unlearn was about the black female body as a site of violence. Ka Lebitso La Moya is about a sexually abusive predator in a high position at church and in politics. I’m drawn to stories that are daring, like Tau, where I was the only female in the room.”

Image: Supplied

Matsunyane uses comedy as a tool to facilitate her dramatic intentions. What she does with the Thenx Ladies are satirical sketches and parodies that address sociopolitical issues affecting young black women, touching on themes such as unemployment, couch casting, family dynamics, relationships and money.

“Comedy, like tragedy, allows us to release and let our guard down. And that’s where I like to strike — hitting the audience with the core of the story where the tragedy coexists with the comedy. With it I address serious things that makes us think. I love comedy and studied it. Last year I got my first shot at stand-up comedy — a secret dream of mine.”

Ka Lebitso La Moya is humorous while dealing with heavy and sensitive issues.

“I started writing this play five years ago after watching a show tracking different spiritual leaders. And I was disgusted by men who take advantage of women and use the word to violate them and exploit the poor. It was important for me to tell a story of this kind because people are so protective of the church and its abusers.”

Ka Lebitso La Moya has four shows at the National Arts Festival on June 28—30. Thereafter it is co-produced by the State Theatre with a season on July 10—28.  

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