Sibongakonke Mama, 33, had never written a play before she submitted her winning work Ibuhlungu le Ndawo and was sincerely shocked to discover she had won the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition.
Currently based in Johannesburg and working as an investigative journalist, Mama holds an MA in Creative Writing from Rhodes University, graduating cum laude. Born in Gcuwa, Eastern Cape, she also studied journalism at Rhodes and the University of the Witwatersrand.
Mama was celebrated alongside her fellow finalists Scout Fynn, Nkamogeleng (Nkamo) Lebeloane, Stephanie Jenkins and Nokuthula Mkwanazi when the winning script was announced at a ceremony at Van Ryn’s Distillery in Stellenbosch, Cape Town.
She pocketed R25 000 and was given the opportunity to have her very first play staged at the 2023 National Arts Festival. She will be mentored in fine-tuning her script and preparing it for the stage.
Interview with Sibongakonke Mama by NWABISA MOYO
MOYO: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your upbringing?
MAMA: I’m a writer and music lover from Gcuwa, I grew up there and in Cape Town, and I am now based in Johannesburg. In addition to playing outside, as a kid, I kept myself busy with reading and writing. I had books before I could read properly, I had a chalkboard through which I taught invisible pupils, and in various parts of my home, there were A5 books of my scribblings.
Q: What inspired Ibuhlungu le ndawo?
Ibuhlungu le ndawo is inspired by the themes, and questions, of home and belonging that seemed to be emphasised throughout last year (and continue to be) in the literature, music, people I interacted with and, of course, in my life.
Q: What motivated you to enter your play into the competition, despite this being the first play you have ever written?
My friend, Thandi Ntuli, sent me the application callout after I’d shared with her, rather wistfully, during a hike my desire to write a play. I found it hilarious that she sent me a callout for an entire competition when I’d told her that I didn’t even know how to write a play. So Thandi motivated me first – I entered because I was tickled and intrigued by her belief that I could enter a whole competition, knowing what she knew. I also wanted to challenge myself to actually try to write a play, and I was curious as to how my voice and approach would be received by those who know the theatre.
Q: How did you feel when you found out that your first-ever play won such a prestigious competition?
I was completely dumbfounded; I still am. I kept laughing and saying, “this is silly” – I still keep saying that every time someone congratulates me or shares the news on social media. I keep going back to conversations I had with friends about why I kept pushing myself to keep writing even though the odds were against me – in those conversations, I never entertained the possibility of winning. I’m still working on believing it.
Q: Can you tell us what the play is about?
The play is a searching for the ideas of home and belonging and what happens when these ideas come up against (questions of) selfhood and what home really is (or isn’t). A woman’s home is interrupted and/or disrupted, and she has to navigate protecting the home or protecting herself – the two aren’t (always) necessarily mutually inclusive.
Q: How would you describe the journey of creating the play?
Painful. I was going through a difficult time personally; I had a deadline, and I didn’t know how to write a play. Writing as, and while, learning under these conditions was excruciating. Listening to the characters, and the real lives that inspired the story, was also emotionally taxing. I tried many times to abandon the play – and I tried to drop out of the competition twice – but it just wouldn’t leave me alone. That on its own was tormenting. When I submitted the script, though, I was filled with love and awe for myself because of my mammoth feat of endurance. I couldn’t believe I got to what felt like a finishing – even though I didn’t know if the play was ‘done’ enough, let alone good enough. I never knew I could fight like that, I don’t know what mad thing in me kept me going.
Q: The play will be performed at the National Arts Festival, which is the biggest arts festival in Africa. How do you feel about being a part of this festival as one of the key contributors to the festival?
This is part of what makes this whole win silly. Little first-time-playwright-and-maker me at the National Arts Festival with her first play? The only way to believe it is to be astounded and laugh! (It’ll probably feel real when I see loved ones at the play) This is all to say that it’s a huge honour for my writing to be taken seriously enough by the judges of the competition to deem it worthy of showing at the National Arts Festival.
Q: What are you looking forward to the most in terms of having your play come to life at the festival next year?
I’m most looking forward to learning from all the professionals – directors, lighting designers and technicians, actors, sound designers, everyone. I’m looking forward to learning approaches to making a quality story from the perspectives of all these people. I’m curious about the questions that are important to them when making the story and building my own understanding of those questions and their importance. I’m also looking forward to just seeing the thing!
Q: What key message do you wish to convey to your audience through your work?
I don’t know that I have a message I’m wanting to convey. I know I’ve got questions about home, selfhood, inheritance and so forth, and I’m hoping that the work is a space where audiences can search those questions, themselves, with all of us who will make the play. I hope that the work might encourage audiences to allow themselves the space and vulnerability, if even for a minute, in their daily lives to ask themselves and search sore questions.
Q: One of your prizes was the opportunity to be mentored in fine-tuning your script and preparing it for the stage. How do you feel about getting an opportunity to work with other playwriters who can guide you through this journey?
It’s invaluable. It’s not every day that you get to have someone dedicated to helping you improve your writing and working with you through your struggling. For most writers, this is a very distant luxury. Getting to discuss with sharp thinkers the ideas and questions they find important is a dream lesson.
Q: What are you looking forward to from the mentorship journey you are about to embark on?
I’m hoping some of that genius will rub off on me! Really, though, I’d love to learn how to go about exploring in a work artistic interests that are very specific to me in a way that still allows audiences to enter the work and find themselves in it instead of being alienated.
Q: Has this opportunity sparked an interest in playwrighting, which you could explore even after screening the Ibuhlungu le ndawo?
Most certainly! I’ve been making some scribblings in an A5 book.
Source: Rhodes University Communications
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this Question & Answer story, the title of Sibongakonke Mama’s play Ibuhlungu le Ndawo was translated into English by a sub-editor. The author objected to the inaccuracy of the translation and to the appropriateness of translating the title of a work of art, especially without the author’s permission. We have apologised to her for this and have removed the translation.
In addition, a number of Sibongakonke Mama’s words were rephrased or paraphrased by the sub-editor. We reinstated the interview’s original transcription to honour her answers’ authenticity and intentionality. We agree that verbatim answers do not need correcting or ‘fixing’ and that it was disrespectful to alter them.