She is King: a modern musical that brings the woman behind the Zulu crown to life
Stage, film and television actor Aubrey Poo joins big South African names in a film based on the life of Zulu Princess Mkabayi ka Jama
Stage, film and television actor Aubrey Poo has for years criss-crossed all three media with ease. Trained in musical theatre at the Tshwane University of Technology, where he graduated with a diploma in musical theatre, Poo says that acting in all three media simultaneously is something he enjoys.
"Logistically, it is akin to a guy who has three tenders and has to make sure that all the three of them are receiving the attention that they need. It is a question of dividing your time appropriately and having the right kind of concentration on each production," he says.
The only challenge, though, is not to mix up the lines. "For example, after acting in one production an hour ago and getting into another, one needs to have a paradigm shift in order to be able to get into a new character that is different from the one [one] was playing an hour ago," he says.
"Sometimes it is just too easy not to remember that you are into a new character."
Poo has just finished shooting a part in a new South African movie She is King, in which he acts alongside other big names such as Khabonina Qubeka, Khanyi Mbau, Mandisa Nduna, Mbuso Kgarebe and Gugu Zulu.
"For me, it was really a wonderful experience to be acting alongside big names in the industry such as Khabonina and Mbau, as well as new fresh talent. The energy was just incredible and I really loved the action," says Poo, who appears in the SABC3 soapie Isidingo as Gabriel Mthusi.
Zulu is an Idols Top 10 finalist. In She is King, Zulu plays the character of Khanyisile and the musical is scheduled to hit the screens on December 1. It is produced by Nicola Rauch, who conceptualised the story and co-wrote the production with Gersh Kgamedi, who is also the director.
Khanyisile is a talented singer, dancer and actor who wants to be a star. She travels from her home in Nongoma in KwaZulu-Natal to audition for a new musical to be staged at the Joburg Theatre based on the life of Zulu Princess Mkabayi ka Jama. After a couple of detours, she lands a role in the chorus and catches the eye of the best-looking dancer in the show, charming soap star Luyanda.
Will she be able to keep up with her more seasoned fellow performers, avoid the jealous machinations of the ageing leading lady and survive the punishing rehearsal schedule to make it to opening night and shine like the star she is?
"The film is primarily about a young woman following a dream and the obstacles she encounters along the way. She comes from kwaNongoma, the historical home of the Zulu royal family," says Kgamedi. "Her story is told against the backdrop of the history of Mkabayi ka Jama, King Shaka’s paternal aunt and one of SA’s most powerful female icons.
The film is primarily about a young woman following a dream and the obstacles she encounters along the way. She comes from kwaNongoma, the historical home of the Zulu royal family,
"Mkabayi was counsellor to her father, King Jama, and the regent for her young brother Senzangakhona following herfather’s death.
"She then selected, groomed, advised and supported kings Shaka, Dingaan and Mpande as leaders of the Zulu nation. She is also believed to have had Shaka and Dingaan killed when they endangered the wellbeing of the kingdom. Mkabayi was, in effect, a monarch of the Zulu nation, or the power behind the throne.
"We want audiences to hear her name and know that the Zulu nation had powerful female leaders; it is not as patriarchal as sometimes characterised. Even today, the older woman in Zulu culture is consulted before family or community decisions are made.
"We also want young women and girls to believe in their own power and ability to be anything they want to be. The word ‘king’ seems to have more power than ‘queen’ and, in this age of awareness of gender equality, we wanted to erase the gender distinction between those terms. Just as a woman can be a president, she can also be a king."
Rauch and Kgamedi believe that the film has a commercial value similar to Happiness is a Four Letter Word, which in 2016, broke South African box office records with its huge audiences. It tells an aspirational, engaging story of a young woman burning with talent and ambition, who is prepared to fight hard for her place in the sun. It showcases the depth and beauty of Zulu culture within a contemporary context that will thrill and engage the young people who see the film.
"We specifically chose the musical genre for the film, as it has not been extensively investigated in local black film since Sarafina in 1992," says Kgamedi. "The ongoing worldwide success of theatrical production The Lion King is undeniable, and our film’s storyline offers both a contemporary and historical look at South African and, more specifically, Zulu culture."
The film was shot on locations around Johannesburg, such as Newtown.
"It is set mainly in a stylish, sophisticated Joburg. The fictitious Malandela Theatre Company is a leading light in South African theatre, one of the biggest, most prosperous companies. This is Africa’s Broadway," Kgamedi says.
"The producers live in a lush luxury housing estate built around a golf course. The cast lives in an expansive Houghton mansion. The social spaces they play in are cool, trendy spots that expose edgy underground urban youth culture. The hit US series Empire was a huge reference for us."
And yet the aesthetic is still an African one. Just as SA’s fashion designers are bringing a sophisticated version of Africa to the catwalks of New York Fashion Week, so the film presents a version of stylish Africanism that is deeply rooted in Zulu culture.
Qubeka, best known for her role in Isidingo, as well as her social media presence as a fitness guru, amazes in the role of Gugu Dhlamini, the diva and antagonist of the piece.
Her fiery passion for what she does shines through and translates into some stunning moments.
Poo gives a warmth and bonhomie to the character of Mak, the show’s director.
His singing is breathtaking and his character is amusing and sincere.
Mbau plays Vivian, the other older character and mentor to the young cast.
Her chain-smoking, wine-swilling character contrasts with everything she has done before. However, she is loveable and believable as a woman coming to the end of her on-stage career.
"In the writing of the film, we created a large ensemble cast that represents a variety of young Zulu women, as the film is essentially about a young woman finding herself within her culture," says Kgamedi.
"In addition to Khanyisile, we have Bongi, a fiercely traditional, bubbly young woman; Zethu, tattooed and androgynous; and Katherine, a cheese-girl ballerina who is detached from her Zulu background," he says.
Kgarebe plays the love interest, Luyanda, and showcases his dancing skills.