Stage legend Mncedisi Shabangu almost failed auditions at acting school, John Kani reveals at memorial service

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

When the recently diseased playwright and stage maestro Mncedisi Baldwin Shabangu    appeared before internationally renowned South African actor John Kani and the late legendary theatre director Barney Simon to audition for a place to train as an actor at the Market Theatre Laboratory in 1993, his acting was so bad that the two gentlemen of theatre dismissed him as a hopeless case.

This is what those who gathered at the Market Theatre yesterday, August, 3, 2022, heard from none other than Kani himself. This was during a memorial services for this highly talented film, TV and stage actor who died suddenly on July 24, 2022 at his home in Kanyamazane, a rural area in Mpumalanga, from where the actor hailed from humble beginnings to become one of the most sought  after stage actors in the country and beyond.

“But Mncedisi faced me and Barney Simon in and stated in our faces that he came all the way from Mpumalanga to be enrolled at the school, and therefore we should enrol him. And indeed he became a success and I worked with him on several projects, the last time being when I directed him and another actor known as Atandwa Kani (the acting son of John Kani). That show Sizwe Banzi is Dead, which I took to the US (2014) as director, attracted so much interest in the US, especially among critics from New York, who concluded that had the show been on Broadway stages, it could have won a Tony Award. I regarded him almost like my son,” Kani said yesterday.

Veteran actress and theatre mentor, Vanessa Cooke, who co-founded the Market Theatre Laboratory with John Kani also paid lavish tribute to Shabangu, and so did Sipho Mwale who was the co-ordinator at The Market Theatre Laboratory at the time when Mncedisi first auditioned.

Speaker after speaker spoke glowingly about how from humble rural beginnings in Mpumalanga, the late actor became a national icon, becoming a theatre ambassador of the country. His younger brother Anele Shabangu revealed that when the family asked him what career he was choosing and he said acting, they were shell-shocked because they were worried as to how he was going to earn a living. But the then recently matriculated young man stuck to his guns and made his way to the Market Theatre Laboratory in 1993.

One of the prominent figures who also paid tribute to the actor is William Kendridge, who is currently in Italy but sent a letter that was read by Centre for Less Good Idea Animateur Phalas Phala. The Maboneng based centre was founded by Kendrige and Mncedisi worked with Kentridge on several of its projects in recent years.

“Mncedisi’s presence will still be felt in our future projects,” concluded Kendrige.

The memorial service, which was held after Mncesdisi’s funeral on Saturday in Kanyamazane was heavily attended by his colleagues from TV, stage and film who came to celebrate the life and times a gifted actor, who was also known for not acting out celebrity, even though he deserved everything that comes with that hugely abused title in the context of the South African entertainment scene.

In fact Mncedisi did not take kindly to being called a celebrity. I remember an incident last year at a pub ion Newtown, which is popular with artists when he confronted a lady who had called him a celebrity. He looked at her angry and almost lost it. “Have you ever seen a celebrity in this place? This place is not for celebrities. Do you understand?” I had to intervene and calm him down, after which he did what he was known for, enjoying his beer in peace and calmness.

That was the Mncedisi we knew –who never answered to the title celebrity, even though based on his artistic output and achievements, he was in fact one.

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