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Mthombeni quit eating meat to prepare for role as a female assassin

One-woman show Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater is based on a true story

Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.
Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.
Image: supplied

Mpume Mthombeni stopped eating meat for three months to prepare for her new role as a female assassin in the play Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater. 

Mthombeni portrays the role of Zenzile Maseko in the play that opens on Friday at the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg. The one-woman show premiered at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, Eastern Cape, in 2022, where it received rave reviews. 

The seasoned 51-year-old actor with credits on both stage and TV, include The Wife and Durban Gen, tells Sowetan she is excited about the role of an inkabi (assassin).

Mthombeni says she began preparing mentally and physically for the role and the play at large mentally from three months ago.

Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater is based on a true story of Zenzile Maseko who was an IFP assassin in the 1980s.

Mthombeni defines Maseko as a lonely woman and feels life severely dealt her a bad hand.

Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.
Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.
Image: supplied

Eager to master the role, Mthombeni says her research included visiting the former assassin at her place of abode at Thokoza Women's Hostel in Durban central. 

“It was important for me to prepare my mind and my body for this character because it is a one-woman show. Physically and emotionally, it is taxing. I speak for one hour and forty minutes alone. So, it was important to be fit and healthy,” Mthombeni reveals. 

"I lived on a vegetarian diet for three months to achieve this. I’m loving every minute playing Zenzile. I don’t get into it [role], I become her.

“I visited the woman and I found her living in a tiny room in a hostel. When I arrived, she had just been hit by a stroke. It was difficult for her to move around.

"She did everything in her house using one hand. I wanted to see how she speaks and make that connection since I will be telling her story. I needed to see how she does things and how she moves.” 

Mthombeni say as she listened to Maseko, she was shaken by the chilling details of her modus operandi.

She shared how she would be given a list of people to kill, and she would shoot [them] in cold blood. She called herself Isidlamlilo to steel herself as she killed a lot of people together with other female assassins.

She was finally captured by ANC people, whose fellow members were the targets as per orders given to her. She was taken to a place called eTafuleni near iNanda graveyard. People who were taken to eTafuleni in those heady days of political violence in KZN never lived to tell the tale but she survived.

Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.
Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.
Image: supplied

She spent seven months in a coma in hospital but when she finally was discharged, her gun was not discharged as she hunted down her ANC attackers and wiped out all of them.

With the play written and directed by Neil Coppen, Mthombeni says the plan is not to open old wounds but for people to start healing.

The story offers an insightful look at the cycles of violence and revenge that play out across generations. 

“We know that the scars are still there because these stories were never told. The show touches people’s hearts and they will begin the process of healing. But those who plan to watch it should come with an open heart. While actors should expect a master class because I take my work seriously.” 

Despite her equal brilliance on TV, Mthombeni says she prefers the stage because it allows her to explore characters the way she wants.

She says acting on television is very limiting because you are speaking to cameras. 

“On stage once I am in a character it takes over. In the theatre, I interact with people directly and I can feel them and their energy. I get the reaction right there from the audience. It’s a give and take situation.”

Born in Umlazi township in Durban, Mthombeni started acting in 1994 and appeared in Julius Caesar in 1996. She has appeared on TV shows such as The Harvesters, Durban Gen, Imbewu: The Seed, Uzalo and Z’bondiwe. 

bambalelep@sowetan.co.za

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