Antonio Lyons is an American Actor, Poet, House Music Vocalist and Social Activist of Jamaican decent and U.S ubringing, lured to South Africa by his love affair with House Music. The actor’s life is split between two worlds; with one foot In Los Angeles and the other caught in the South African arts and cultural landscape; Antonio has moved between roles worlds apart. He is known for characters like Washington Lee in the 2006 TV movie Avenger to Happy Jack in the TV miniseries The Book of Negroes; Mirama in the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda; Remy in the 2006 TV series Home Affairs and Lolo Grey on Generations.
“So what sparked the move to South Africa?” I ask.
While living in L.A Lyons met Myrto Makrides: a Greek and South African filmmaker who casted him in her student film; she planted the first seed in Antonio’s mind about visiting the country; she was certain that he would love it here, but Antonia wasn’t keen at first, because he had imagined that South Africa was still living in the backdrop of Apartheid and thus was reluctant to explore the country, until his best friend who was working in South Africa at that time, raved about the magnitude of the South African house music scene, that Lyons eventually let his guard down and like a man with nothing to lose, he packed his bags and dipped both his feet into a place he never knew he would one day call home. In 2001 he dotted through the country, traveling through Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, moving to the sound of house music and house parties. He describes the atmosphere in the country at that time as “Phoenix rising energy” and admits that South Africa had crept beneath his skin.
“It’s a complete shift of being” he says. “You can sit in yourself in a different kind of way here, once you exist in a space as a black person where the majority of the people look like you… When you turn on the T.V you can see yourself, there is room to engage openly and honestly about issues in a real way.”
When he recalls the culture shock he experienced on his first visit, the scenery unfolds like a brand new memory being visited for the very first time.
“When we were driving through Rosebank, some guys were taking a lunch break and they were just sitting together on the grass.”
At this point I am trying to figure out what is so unnatural about this until he recalls a memory of the women who work as house-helps in the suburban areas and how they just randomly gathered to sit on the curb for a chat. In his American accent, lulled by the bits of the South African slang in his dialect, he interjects in disbelief: “You don’t see that in the U.S! Tjo!
His sentences are not complete until he adds a ‘like joe’ or ‘eish’.
You can tell by how he speaks that South Africa, has created a home inside him.
Before Antonio made a final decision to relocate to Mzansi, he visited S.A again in 2002 to determine if what he felt for the country was truly love at first site.
He highlighted two factors that influenced his stay. First was the passing of his long lost friend and model from the U.S: Najee Davis, who had relocated to Cape Town. He bumped into Najee in 2001 while partying up a storm and was devastated by the news of his passing. After Najee was laid to rest, his mother asked Antonia to handle her sons affairs in Cape Town and to send his belongings back home to her.
Second: while in the U.S, in an attempt to doing something different with his life, Antonio started hosting House Music parties. At a local Thanks Giving charity event organized by House Music promoters, he met a connect who uses Electronic music to build awareness around HIV & Aids. She was aware that Antonio was traveling to South Africa and therefore asked for his assistance in garnering support for the initiative in South Africa. His task was to liaise with DJ’s on the ground while in S.A, but little did he know that saying yes would thrust him into the heart of the South African House Music scene and connect him to some of the best House Dj’s in the country.
This launched his house music career and what began as just and idea, to fuse poetry with music, took the country by storm and opened up doors for Lyons to work as a House Music vocalist. In 2007 he released his first solo project ‘Human Jewels’ and his sophomore project ‘We Dance We Pray”, in 2011. To date has worked with some of South Africa’s finest DJ’s; from DJ Mbuso to Fresh; Iggy Smallz; Revolution; DJ clock and the first lady of Kwaito: Tamara Dey.
Lyons says he has always written poetry but he has never experimented with it in that way.
“I’ve never been a performance poet, I’ve been writing since the ages of 15 and 16 but in my public expression, acting has always come first.”
With his thriving career as a house music vocalist, Antonio’s network stretched beyond the music industry. He rubbed shoulders with relevant industry practitioners and one connect led to the next and by word of mouth, his acting profile fell into the right ears. He met Terry George, the director of Hotel Ruwanda who later asked him to audition for the role of Mirama and before he knew it, he was also auditioning for Lolo Grey on Generations; he scored both roles and this marked the beginning of a new page to a life in South Africa.
“In that moment I said God I don’t know what your plan is for my life, I’ve spent two years trying to build my career, I need some space to try and heal myself but if you want me to do this thing, then please place me at the same level of my career, where I was before.” Without a definite plan for his life in South Africa, Antonio left his fate in God’s hands and his prayers were answered one dream at a time. When he realized acting agencies at that time, couldn’t sponsor a visa for an actor, Najee’s Modelling Agent pulled through and together with Tamara Dey’s manager, they co-sponsored his visa. This enabled him to spread his wings further out into the country.
“Modelling also included commercials so Najee’s modeling agency could represent me and because of the collaboration I did with Tamara Dey, her manager Kerry Friedman came on board to help sponsor my visa.” With visa in hand, Antonio’s feet were planted firmly into the South African Soil and during his stay, he unpacked more than just his bags to begin his new journey. In 2010, he wrote a play entitled ‘We Are Here’, which utilizes poetry to unpack his discontentment about the exclusion of male voices in conversations surrounding gender violence, he shares the motivation behind this work.
“I’m here living in South Africa, and 16 days of activism against violence towards women and children would happen every year, and every year I would be more annoyed about the campaign until I reached a point where I could articulate what my annoyance was about. My annoyance was about how as a man, I was absent from that conversation, in billboards and on radio, If a male body was mentioned it was as this person terrorizing our communities and it made me very angry and confused.” While men’s voices tend to override women’s voices on issues pertaining to the violation of their bodies, Antonio spent seven years developing ‘We Are Here’ to engage men and boys around themes of gender violence, identity, healthy relationships and HIV/AIDS. He was intentional in his decision to work with female directors who understood the actor’s process.
“when developing the play ‘We Are Here’ i wanted to work with female voices that could bring balance to my male perspective; that could say you’re talking about gender violence, you’re talking around and through and with female bodies so how do you make sure you stay responsible without fetishizing women’s bodies and their experiences?”
The feminine forces that have helped shape the play are ‘Four Corners’ leading lady,
Lindiwe Matshikiza; Actress, Director and former Soweto Theatre Artistic Director Warona Seana helped develop the physical language for the play. Lyons brought in Refilwe Nkomo as the producer. Refilwe is the woman behind ‘Songs for Khwezi’: a choreopoem which interrogates power and the state as it relates to violence against women. Lyons says that the play was met with resistance from NGO’s and women’s organizations because they felt that as a man Lyons had no place in this conversation. He argues though that in as much as there are a large number of men damaging communities, there are also those who are not.
“Our voices cannot be heard because we haven’t been taught or allowed to use them in those spaces. These conversations have been happening in silos” Lyons interrogates “how far has this gotten us?”
Following the success of the play Lyons adds that people were hungry for more conversations.
To continue the work and to move beyond the play and to create a male centered space for young men and boys to engage in, Lyon’s began the process of running workshops for boys and young men in Marginalized communities. As he was developing the curriculum to extend the conversations into the marginalized communities, he realized that he required more tools to develop the program so he went back to the U.S in 2011 to complete his Masters Degree in Applied Theatre: a study for the use of theatre techniques for the purpose of community development, conflict resolution and behavioral change, based on the works of the Brazilian theatre practitioner: Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed”. Boal’s techniques utilizes theatre as a means for promoting social and political change. Lyons summarises the intention of Baol’s work.
“In order to work with people in communities you have to meet people where they are and help them discover the education processes towards liberating themselves.”
Lyons has redefined Boals techniques for himself. He is weary of using pedagogies that don’t speak to his identity, he finds the teachings valuable but says: “I’m always opposed to African diaspora people learning methodologies and tools that are not from us.”
To counter that he began to research how the black diaspora has utilized similar techniques for social change.
“Whether it’s someone in a traditional village that has the ability to speak to power or a praise singer, whether it’s that person in the king’s court who uses satire to address the real issues of the people…In the U.S context, coupled with the civil rights movement was the black arts movement. Amiri Baraka’s work comes out of that tradition. They were looking at how to utilize the arts to impact the communities; to fight oppression; to rebuild a sense of identity; a sense of wholeness and completeness. To provide people with the tools to unshackle their minds from slavery and colonization because of Jim Crow and segregation.”
Antonio borrows heavily from those traditions to inform his research on how to build workshops to work with young men and boys.
“All the time I was thinking about processes to develop; to bring back to South Africa that would inform the workshop program for ‘We Are Here’
After completing his Masters Degree, Lyons came back to S.A and picked up exactly from where he left off, and began implementing what he had learned.
‘We Are Here’ started as a one-man show, the play has been reworked four times.
“Initially It was about a journalist who comes to S.A to cover a particular story and he discovers these men’s stories which makes him reflect on his own journey”
Now the play looks at Antonio’s journey from Los Angeles to South Africa; he reflects on his experiences along the way and the epiphany that led him to tell these stories.
“Why do I tell these stories, why do I decide to engage with this issue?”
Throughout the development process, the one-man show has been reworked into a multi-person show, featuring a cast of young men from T.X Theatre Productions in Tembisa that Lyons has been working with since 2013, the play has been readapted to include their stories.
“Half of the play is the original script and the other half is their stories; what the young men experience in their communities and what is important to them.”
‘We Are Here’ is an example of how art can be utilized to engage and to probe real life issues while creating our own solutions to daily challenges that keep us from moving forward.