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Portrait of an Artist: Gcina Mhlophe

Gcina Mhlophe.
Gcina Mhlophe. By Courtesy of Gcina Mhlophe
By Drew L. Cheng, Contributing Writer

Gcina Mhlophe is a South African actress, playwright, poet, director and activist. For over 20 years, Mhlophe has graced screens and stages around the world telling stories that celebrate culture and language. Mhlophe is a writer in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where she also performs and volunteers for organizations in the Boston area. Following the January run of her show, “Braveheart,” The Harvard Crimson sat down with Mhlophe to discuss her artistic journey.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Harvard Crimson: As a storyteller, poet, playwright, director, and author, what allows you to cross boundaries between so many domains?

Gcina Mhlophe: When I started I just wrote poetry, and then I did a bit of short story writing. I think the performance poetry side of things opened my work to a wider audience. Even people who did not work out what language I am speaking, they were looking at the performance itself. And then I wrote in English as well, and people got to know my poetry and it got published in a few anthologies and magazines. It is the performance poetry, in fact, that opened the window for me into the stage. Working with the market theater of Johannesburg meant that I got to share my skills, my message, and my writings with a wider audience. Traveling to different countries has been unbelievable because of the theater world, even though it was difficult during the Apartheid years because sometimes we were not allowed or granted a passport, or when you got back home you had to answer to the police. But we were very clear we were cultural ambassadors traveling in these countries. And if you were denied it was okay, you continued doing your work.

THC: In your work, you often emphasize the power of the human voice. How do you feel that language aids you in your mission to preserve South African culture, or any culture for that matter?

GM: Stories are very powerful and very universal, number one. Number two is that the language in which you speak, if it’s the language of people where you are operating, is a stronger way of connecting with the people. One of the most asked questions about why I tell stories — the answer is always the same. I tell stories to wake up stories in other people, because I know every living being has a story to tell. Everybody's got a story. So if I can wake up stories in other people I will always say “mission accomplished.” So whether you are doing it in English or Zulu or Xhosa, it doesn’t matter which language you are speaking. If you connect with your audience and you are waking up stories within them, then you have done your job.

THC: To continue writing books, telling stories — where does it all come from? Where do you draw your inspiration from?

GM: For me it comes from things that I wish to experience. It comes from me being grateful for the privilege of having traveled as much as I have traveled, and sharing. The operative word in the work is sharing. So, if I can continue sharing what my parents and grandparents and my people gave me, I learn from other people again. When I go to different storytelling festivals, I experience so much. I listen to storytellers from different countries, and I think “wow! I never heard it like that.” With all this crosspollination from moving from this culture to that culture, if you listen to a storyteller from Turkey, a storyteller from Iran, from Chile, from Canada — it’s amazing, it’s always growing. I inspire, and I get reinspired.

THC: As a South African woman and a writer, do you feel that more South African women have a voice in today’s world?

GM: More South African women have definitely got a voice, and women are demonstrating their power in different ways. Another thing that pleases me is that at my age, I watch the younger generation, and I see the way that they are interacting, the way they are expressing themselves, and I love it. It really makes me feel good when I see young people looking at life in a way that I can’t look at because I am of a different generation. That’s been something special. It happens all over the world, by the way. There’s always new voices and new ways of looking at things, and that is also happening in South Africa or in southern Africa, for that matter.

THC: Have you thought about how the digital age brings new ways to express these stories?

GM: Oh, definitely. I’ve recorded CDs with my stories, and also I’ve written scripts where a story has been published in animation. I’ve done different things helping people in illustrating exhibiting, and interpreting the stories I have told. So there are many possibilities. Recently, a young composer adapted a poem that I wrote into an opera song, and the poem is performed with this beautiful opera singer. I was so honored, so humbled. It just never stops changing. I am looking to do more in the digital space, maybe opening a YouTube channel — because there is a lot to share with others.

—Contributing writer Drew L. Cheng can be reached at drewcheng@college.harvard.edu.

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