Madiba the Musical has just started its run in Australia – the leading man, Perci Moeketsi, took a break from rehearsals to chat to us.
At first glance, 30-year-old musical theatre performer, Perci Moeketsi doesn’t seem to have much in common with the iconic figure he portrays in the production Madiba the Musical.
Moeketsi is a native of the North-West province and a Tswana speaker, while Mandela hailed from the Eastern Cape and famously spoke English with a deep Xhosa accent. Moeketsi shied away from education for almost five years after completing high school, while Mandela took every opportunity to further his studies. Despite this, the talented thespian intends to ensure audiences in Australia and New Zealand will resonate with the people’s man.
“Mandela chose not to concentrate on the differences people have, but rather to focus on the many commonalities people share. Through the triple threat of dance, song and acting, we are telling the story of a man who achieved the impossible. He bridged the gap between black and white South Africans at the country’s most crucial period, after the fall of apartheid,” says Perci.
While Madiba employed persuasive words, rallies and, as a young man, occasional militancy to get his message across, Perci went a different route. Entertainment has always been part of his arsenal when he needed to communicate effectively. As a scholar, he was often in the principal’s office for disrupting the class by acting, dancing, rapping and singing. Little did he know then that his mischievous showmanship would land him his biggest break … all the way in Australia.
“I discovered that I enjoyed being the centre of attraction and my audiences gave me great feedback. More importantly, performance art was my ticket out of a tough time – I stayed home with no plan after completing high school. But then each time I was part of a production, including the township rendition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet– entitled Rorisang and Julie– I found myself and the audience being transported to a different place. That is when I decided to enrol for an acting diploma.
“By playing Mandela, I aim to show a man who also found himself through the various stages in his life. His hardships and triumphs are what I will concentrate my artistic efforts on, as every person alive relates to these. Myself and the cast use song and dance to take the audience on a journey of a man. At the end of the show, each audience member at the various venues where we will be performing should know Madiba on an intimate level. Through the musical, they should know that he was of resolute character, was one of the most humble people, did not compromise on his dignity and always put others first.”
Unlike those living in Madiba’s home country, Australians and New Zealanders might not know the man on a level that South Africans do. They might not be familiar with Madiba’s jive, shirts and magic. Few will know the significance of his accent, or his deep love of music. Since Perci is performing for a foreign audience, who might not pick up on some theatrical nuances, will he forego the hero’s finer idiosyncrasies and instead paint the picture of a well-known politician?
“Definitely not. That is the power of theatrical performance. This is the perfect way to educate the audience on who Mandela, the man, was. They know all about his political side, but music, dance and acting allows us to really peel away the layers. We will connect with the crowd on a deeper level for an appreciation of just how much he loved Winnie Mandela, how proud he was of his Xhosa heritage and the various elements that kept him going for so many decades.
“As a South African, I also cannot take a shortcut and claim to know him. I still have to maximise my research and watch films and documentaries and read as much material about him as possible. But that is the easy part,” he laughs.
“I then have to BE Mandela!”
For Perci, this means connecting with various audiences. “In Melbourne, for example, the vibe is very chilled, and I might have to convince them a bit more to get them excited, while in Sydney, they are more likely to celebrate with the cast. So this means using different acting techniques for all the different energy levels – this is where being able to read the crowd is critical. As a musical theatre performer, we have tools that we use to, firstly, scan the environment, then to sway the audience to a certain direction.”
Perci will be introducing spectators to a 30-something-year-old Madiba who has a strong affinity to the law, then later morphs into an astute politician and ultimately a loved humanitarian. But for Perci, there is a personal subtext to the musical as well.
“When I first heard of the auditions, I tried out for the role of Sam Onatou, a young black activist who was arrested in South Africa. In prison he goes on to meet the man known as Madiba: Nelson Mandela. I truly thought I was not good enough to be the main lead. Here I was, a boy from Brits attempting to fill such huge shoes. Then I realised that Madiba was once a boy from a small village called Qunu and he went on to achieve amazing feats. That is when I realised just how privileged I am to be in this role.”
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Madiba the Musical is based on the impossible love story between black and white South Africans, just after the demise of the apartheid regime. It celebrates the visionary leader’s crusade for equality and freedom for all.
The production runs in New Zealand in January and February 2019, with shows in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington.
Words: Sbu Mkwanazi