Pauline Malefane, actress, singer, and musical director of the Isongo ensemble, was born in 1976 in a poor section of Cape Town, South Africa. When she was in elementary school, she went on a field trip to see a production of Don Giovanni, her first experience with opera. The production was very traditionally operatic, leading Malefane to remember it as “a very strange afternoon for black kids from the township. You couldn’t associate it with anything” (Otas) This was the moment that sparked her artistic path. She went on to become a celebrated opera singer and Co-Founder of the Isango Ensemble, a theater company focused on telling story’s in a South African way.
After graduating from the University of Cape Town’s College of Music with a Performer’s Diploma in Music, she co-founded the Isango Ensemble with Mark Dornford-May in 2000 (Isango). (Two years later, the couple got married. They now have three children (Dornford-May).) The main artistic goal of the ensemble is to correct the problem of representation that Malefane noted after her first experience with opera by creating a space in which South Africans can see themselves and their way of living on stage.
Malefane is the musical director of the company, but her first major role as an actress was the title role in a production of Carmen. She had been cast as an ensemble member, but three weeks before the production was set to open, the lead actress stepped down. Pauline took the role in this classic Spanish opera, transplanted to South Africa and translated into Xhosa. Interestingly enough critics in South Africa were not kind to the production, while London critics raved about it, providing a glimpse into what could be the internalized racism and elitism of the South African theater community (Otas).
For many years, the company performed stories with European origins, such as The Magic Flute, A Christmas Carol, and Venus Adonis, an epic poem penned by Shakespeare, but employing the languages and visuals of South Africa. These productions toured all over the world, from Sweden to Cape Town to the Globe Theater in London (Isango).
In 2001, the Ensemble first opened their production of Yiimimangaliso, or The Mysteries. In this adaptation of the Chester Cycle of Medieval mystery plays, Malefare played Mary. In later revivals of the production, she played God and Jesus. The Ensemble held open auditions to cast the show, and over one thousand South Africans auditioned and 33 were cast. As an intentional choice to both represent the diversity of their cast and as a way to present these universal bible stories in a truly universal way, each cast member was allowed to speak their lines in whatever language they were most comfortable with. Seven languages were spoken in the final production, mostly Afrikaans, English, Xhosa, Zulu. One review described the effect of these multiple languages: “Of course, we know this story, and while the use of Middle English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu might seem a challenge to the audience, the effortless and rapid change among musical idioms, and from one linguistic heritage to the next, becomes a tool of lyric estrangement that, in fact, allows the audience to get closer to this old story and this cast’s vigorous engagement with it” (Tucker)
As a retelling of Biblical stories, the production also made clear theological statements in their choice of visual elements. When Noah and his family are saved from the flood, they begin a crazy wild happy rendition of “You are my Sunshine.” They fall silent when God appears, fearing His wrath, but He immediately restarts the song, louder and livelier than ever. The incarnation of Jesus was indicated by God taking off his grand traditional robes to reveal a pair of blue jeans so he had enough freedom of motion to dance with Mary. These choices are simple but effective in highlighting aspects of the nature of God and theology of Christianity.
Pauline Malafare also makes appearances in several films, most notably U-Carmen eKhayelitsha in 2005 (reprising her role as Carmen, once again translated into Xhosa) (Isango) and Son of Man in 2006 (once again playing Mary in the story of Jesus, set in modern South Africa and operating as a commentary on the government and police brutality) (Isango).
In 2016, I was lucky enough to be in London to see Malefare perfom in the Isango Ensemble’s production of A Man of Good Hope. Based on the novel of the same name by Johnny Steinberg, the play tells the true story of a orphan from Somalia who, in an attempt to find stability and family, emigrates to South Africa through Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and eventually America over the course of his life. Isango’s production turned the story into a musical, employing marimbas and drums as well as song and dance. Unlike other productions by the company, this one was originally a story that took place in Africa. There was no need to transplant the narrative since it already shared to focus on Africa that all Isango productions have.
Pauline Malefare is a talented actress and director who’s passion for her country and for her people leads her to create spectacular works of art. I hope that get to see another of her productions live, and I know that I eagerly await news of what’s coming next.
Billington, Michael. “The Mysteries – Yiimimangaliso.” The Guardian, 16 September 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/sep/16/the-mysteries-review.
Cary, Emily. “South African ensemble takes on Mozart, Shakespeare.” The Washington Times, 11 September 2014, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/sep/11/with-colorful-african-costumes-and-tribal-drumming/.
Hall, George. “A Man of Good Hope review at he Young Vic, London—‘hard-hitting yet inspiring.’” The Stage, https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2016/a-man-of-good-hope-review-at-the-young-vic-london/.
Isango Ensemble. Isango Ensemble, 2015, http://site.isangoensemble.org.za. Accessed 18 April 2017.
“A Man of Good Hope Trailer.” YouTube, uploaded by YoungVicLondon, 13 Sept 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O5zbyw_m40.
“Mark Dronford-May.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Dornford-May.
Otas, Belinda. “Pauline Malefane: Worldwide Woman.” Belinda Otas, 5 June 2007, http://belindaotas.com/?p=2819.
“Pauline Malefane.” IMDb. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1847057/.
Pauline Malefane, interviewed by Toby Green, 5-Minute Interview, The Independent, 21 February 2008, transcript, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/the-5-minute-interview-singeractress-pauline-malefane-784922.html.
McElroy, Steven. “’A Man of Good Hope,’ a Refugee Tale for the Moment.” The New York Times, 8 Feb 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/theater/a-man-of-good-hope-a-refugee-tale-for-the- moment.html?_r=0.
“Pauline Malefane.” Cultures-Fiji, http://fiji.spla.pro/en/file.person.pauline-malefane.10026.html.
Soloski, Alexis. “Review: In ‘A Man of Good Hope,’ a Boy Wonders if America Is His Refuge.” The New York Times, 16 Feb 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/16/theater/review-in-a-man-of-good-hope-a-boy-wonders-if-america-is-his-refuge.html.
Tucker, Betsy Rudelich. “Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries.” Theater Journal, vol. 54, no 2, 2002, pp 303–305, Project Muse, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/34991.