Mongiwekhaya: The playwright raising all the right questions

“How does language create boundaries and hold secrets?”, is one of the questions Mongiwekhaya poses in his impressive debut play, I See You, currently on at the Fugard Theatre. The work explores present tensions experienced by South Africans touching on issues of identity, race, language and their intrinsic power. 

In South Africa, few writers – if any – are able to make a living penning words for stages. Most who call themselves playwrights are self-taught, have studied a few courses along the way or have traveled overseas to expand their learning. It seems that where talent and eagerness abound, opportunity and mentorship are scarce.

To counter this, Mongiwekhaya is part of the Playriot collective, which was established after a few members traveled to London and took part in the Royal Court programme. Inspired by their experience overseas, Playriot aims to continuously nurture writers by creating a platform where they can share, develop and work together to find avenues to promote their writing.

The Royal Court theatre was where I See You first premiered before heading to the Market Theatre in Joburg and now the Fugard in Cape Town. We chatted to Mongiwekhaya to learn more about his penchant for words, the challenges faced by young writers, and the aspirations he has for South African theatre.


You’re an actor, director and playwright. What drew you to a career in theatre?  

My love of storytelling is at the core of it. I love the live action of theatre – there is no middle man in the relationship between the action and the audience. I love the concept of being creative to produce a live storytelling event – no second takes, no CGI, just immediacy and imperfection of a real time experience.  

Who or what influences your writing? 

That’s a wonderful question! So many things and people over the years, and from so many different genres and areas. David Mamet, Steven Berkoff, as well as artists who are not writers, such as filmmaker Ridley Scott who made me think a lot about lighting in relation to storytelling. I love the writing of twentieth century journalist and writer Lawrence Green and have a collection of some of his works. Then there are people such as Steve Biko, whose work and concepts of Black Consciousness particularly influenced my writing of I See You. I also have a deep love of artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, who crossed boundaries with their work, as well as Gustav Klimt for the sheer beauty of his creations. Of course as well the great Shakespeare, because not only did he write epic heroic figures but also interesting ensemble characters who are as intriguing for me. I love his structural cleverness and the way in which he explores time, space and metaphysics.

You were the lead in William Kentridge’s Woyzeck on the Highveld.  How has performing aided your writing process?

Before that piece, I was mostly working on devising theatre, working from a concept of a basic image. Woyzeck was working with puppetry, so you are actually writing every single moment – picking up a cup you have to figure out how to tell the story. So performing taught me you can’t bring a character on to the stage without being clear about what the power and value of that line or scene is to the storytelling moment.

What are some of the obstacles South African playwrights face and how do you think they can be overcome? 

There are so many but I think one of the biggest things is that there is no continued history of playwriting. There are few opportunities to learn how to write, structure a play and the role of the dramaturges. Writers are not revered for their work. Also the obvious economic situation that it’s very hard to pay your bills solely being a writer, so we rarely develop national treasures. Writing a good story takes time and effort but writers have to face the challenge of also raising funding, producing, marketing and often performing multiple production tasks such as lighting and sound. Only the most insane carry on!

Can you tell us about some of the research you’ve done as a residential fellow in theatre at the Centre for Humanities? What insights have you gained?

Through my work with the Handspring Trust for Puppetry Arts, and the Barrydale Puppet Parade, you realise how many bright, young and talented youth there are out there with no avenue to channel that creativity, but also that skills training is not enough, you have to think about food, transport, sustainable professional opportunities and the often shocking circumstances that they have to deal with on a daily basis. We saw the positive impact that the project had on helping them to tap in to creativity and also bring the community together.

You’re part of a South African playwrights collective called Playriot. How did this come about and how has it shaped your writing?

Playriot was established after some of us were in London for the Royal Court programme. We wanted to replicate the respect they show for writers overseas, by creating a forum where writers can share, develop and find avenues to promote their work. A group to support the specific creative, practical and financial needs of a writer. It is too early to say yet how it has impacted on my own writing but we are making great strides in nurturing writers, including making theatre for young audiences.

There are plenty of capable black writers and artists in South Africa. What I would like to see is more mainstream opportunities for them so they are not consistently regarded to be community theatre artists.

For I See You, you’ve collaborated with Olivier Award winning actress, Noma Dumezweni. This production marked her directorial and your debut as a playwright. What has the experience been like and what important things have your learnt so far?

Noma is an incredible person and significant inspiration. She has an unparalleled instinct for what is needed on stage to tell a story – if something is not true on stage, it does not belong, and storytelling can take place in its purest form. All the performers in I See You were making their Royal Court debut  – young actors who are making a big splash in the industry. The entire process was a very exciting and meaningful experience.

I See You is based on true events. As an artist, how do you channel personal experience and create work without it becoming indulgent? 

Personal experience is about a relationship and as a writer you have to take on all sides. You review the negative force and have to create meaning out of it. Sometimes as a writer, as the experience is taking place, you are already trying to understand the psychology of that person to experience the event from a different point of view. When you come to write inspired by an event, at some point you have to realise that it is not about you, otherwise it is not a great draft! You have to divorce yourself from the situation on the page, and I guess each writer does that differently. I use the theatricality of the process of writing and delve in to the metaphysical aspects of the event, as well as add a bit of fabrication.


Characters speak in English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa. What power do different languages hold in present day South Africa? 

That is what the play is exploring in part. How does language create boundaries and hold secrets, and how we use it to hide from each other? I read recently that modern speech is about persuasion not revelation. The process of writing I See You was a revelation and to the audience in each scene, something must still be revealed. It’s a challenge but I work well with a challenge – limitations require you to be inventive. It’s hard to write a scene of two characters talking on a cell phone on stage as that could be boring to watch, but how do you use that cellphone as a third space, so that it becomes a way of communicating a moment of action or next step of the narrative? It is amazing what can be done.


What are some of the linguistic, cultural and generational challenges faced by born frees today? 

Previous generations had to deal with borders in a very real, solid and tangible sense. This generation is the opposite – they have freedom, boundaries are more porous, but often because they are not more obvious, they are more dangerous. They may experience freedom but encounter people who do not share their same ideals, leading to unfortunate, sad and downright shocking experiences.

Is there anything you hope to see more from black artists in the landscape of South African theatre? 

There are plenty of capable black writers and artists in South Africa. What I would like to see is more mainstream opportunities for them so they are not consistently regarded to be community theatre artists.

What do you hope to leave audiences with after watching the production?

It’s a multi-faceted show. Originally I wanted people to leave with an idea of people like mine’s existence. However that idea is long past as a small perspective as the play is about many more things – more diverse and universal concepts such as the generation gap, language, distance and just what I See You means to them. My job is to raise questions and provoke ideas and thoughts in the minds of the audience, and once they have that thought or response, it becomes a valid reaction to their own experience of the play.

Follow Mongiwekhaya on Twitter.

I See You is on at the Fugard till 28 May. Visit here to book tickets.

Mongiwekhaya Mongiwekhaya

Production images by Johan Persson.

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