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New Breed | Billy Edward Langa

BillyEdwardlanga
Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe |Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Director Samke Makhoba | Make-up Artist Pumzile Mhlongo | Interview by Sisonke Mbalekwa
Editor In Chief:  Mandisa Vundla

What inspired your journey into Acting?
I come from Hammanskraal, I was born, bred and raised there up until Matric. I’m a ‘plaasjapie’, plaas, plaas, plaas but my family had a house here In Sophia Town since ’94 so we always moved between Jo’burg and Hammanskraal. I come from a very respectable family and this field of performance was never on the list of things I wanted to do. The school I went to never had drama it was just Science, Commerce, and Home Economics. When I fully came to Jo’burg in 2007,  I did Electrical Engineering at CJC then I bumped into the poems and I was very passionate about poetry. I joined the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre and we got this great opportunity to collaborate with a poetry company in the Netherlands, U.K. They came down and in 2010 we went to the UK. That’s where I learned that actually this thing, you can study it because we were amongst universities, theatre companies and I was just doing it as a hobby. I got so excited when I saw them using the whole body and decided that when I got back to Joburg, I’m gonna study performance at Wits but I thought four years! I don’t have that time. Then the Lab came into the picture, it was tough then as well because they were only taking 12 students, I auditioned and I made it in.

You cofounded Kofifi Theatre, how did that come about?
The Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre had a program called Sophia Town Ambassadors and we were in that group which was the same group that collaborated with the Netherlands people -they took us to the U.K and when we came back we thought shoo… A ‘Theatre company’ Yes! Let’s recreate the spirit of Sophia Town with performances, dance, music and poetry. We decided to start the company ‘Kofifi’ with Makgomo Tsipa and Titus Mekgwe. I was accepted at the lab while the theatre company was starting up. We were dreaming and brewing Sophia Town while I was learning the craft -how to really do this thing. We were supposed to stage Sophia Town in 2012 but we lost the cast because there was no money, the project looked like it wasn’t gonna happen but the centre helped us to get funds from the NAC. We received a bit of money and in 2013 we staged the play at the Soweto Theatre. This is a belt into independence as well. This is when one is launched into the idea of making ones work, collaborating with others, starting one’s company, running the company and making the work. It became extremely difficult but I think the production did quite well, so far that play is the blueprint that they use for Sophia Town today. When the students want to access it, it’s available online or they can go to the centre as well. It was a great production, it wasn’t bad for a first directing piece. I wasn’t working alone, Makgomo was the co-director and we had a mentor from the U.K as well. That kind of influenced one’s approach towards performance and writing.

How are you thriving as a theatre practitioner today in light of all the challenges theatre is faced with?
You come to a point where you are offered to come into television as well. But I know personally that I’m not gonna last there and sometimes I fear that the quality that I want to make is gonna fade away with the mist of fame and these are my personal problems that I need to sort out. That’s why I’m sticking to this hard thing that’s not moving. It feels like you’re always rising, you’re always upcoming which makes it a big problem because there are the upcoming ones that I’m seeing and when are we gonna open space for them.

It’s exciting as well to be in that space when you’re with your elders and they see you coming, and they go jeses, There’s something there mfana, work hard. And you’re like, I will work hard, I will passionately work hard. Then they cast you, they put you in productions, it’s great, it’s lovely; beautiful opportunities for the world to see you. Then you have your ideas and you wonder when it will be time for you to come with your ideas into that space. Will they say you’re grown enough or you’re still ‘uprising’? (We need to put you in our things first before you can have your voice). You kind of have to qualify and one wonders, does youthful energy block you or not?

They think you’re still young because they experience the youthful energy that you have and forget the quality that you can make. They always think that they will make work for you but you will never make your own work which makes it difficult for the whole line of the ones who are coming in. Personally, that’s where one is because it feels like I’m even blocking space for them. To be recognized I think it’s taking longer in the country coz elsewhere, the world sees us and that’s so saddening. Is it close proximity?  You wonder if the country is too close to you that they can’t realize what you have to offer but the world sees you better because they’re at a distance and you get opportunities elsewhere when you want to get them here at home and to be part of the revolutionary movement that happens at home, not to be the ones that went away and came back better, leaving to make the world better out there -but we must make means.

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What means are you making?
The world sees us and we will go to the world and we’ll tell the world about our world and the good things that our world has to offer either than the complaints coz we have to recreate that world. The elders are getting out of the way even when they don’t want to, they’re gonna get out, we’re gonna step in. We have to be cognizant of the fact that we might just be like them and stay there forever and not open gaps. So one is trying to go, I shouldn’t stay long in this moment of fame, I must open up the industry and I think that’s also a way for one to be celebrated.

How do you open up the industry without compromising your income because you also need the work?
It’s through investment. One is seeing that the industry is growing so when you grow it with people knowing you and what you’ve done, that investment offers a lot. When one says, I’m here because of … That helps to say I didn’t make it alone I was helped as well maybe by… Your name will always be attached to those who are great.  Also in terms of directing and opening up, the idea of independence and theatre-making, where we write our stuff we direct our stuff and we cast young people, we make them great, they go. Your name is always attached as the producer as well. When they start shining, you’re also shining, that’s how we’re protecting ourselves as well to say let’s give them a chance and do the stuff for them and they will be celebrated but we know in their celebration there are also the fruits that we get which is their fame and our money.

What are you currently working on?
We’re doing  ‘A place of Knowing’ with the theatre duo and Intsusa: a cast of 5 female actors, who are students at AFDA. They are also a company called Intsusa, beautiful performers, like extraordinary theatre-makers as well. The concept here is friendship, they are sharing their personal narratives through accounts; what they’ve gone through (self-written works). Mahlatsi and I mentored the process as directors, we facilitated in the writing process which is different from what we do. When they’re always thinking the theatre duo they think Billy or Mahlatsi, heightened poetry, movement but this is very very personal, it is a different colour from what we’ve done and I think this comes from the collaboration which helps us to grow, becoming genuine and touching lives and really really making great art.

What has been your most rewarding moment throughout your journey?
When we created the movement RSA. Movement RSA was a theatre company that we started with Mahlatsi, we combined graduates from different institutions; from The Lab, from AFDA; from Wits and we created this company. We did the show ‘Just Antigone’ which was an adaptation of Antigone the classic and we brought it closer to home
-South Africa, with a cast of seven and it was one of the most beautiful things that happened to theatre for a young audience in 2016 and for ourselves as well. Our rise independently was through that collaboration and that won a Naledi Award.

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On a scale of one to ten, how far are you in reaching your desired destination?
I can confidently say we are half way, we’re at five.

What do you think is required from you to take yourself from that five to a 10?
I just need to stay persistent because I am slowing getting tired, my spine is busy curling and it’s scary because I see what I am gonna choose. It’s easy, so easy…Fame. It might have wealth. The sad thing is that when you reach that place, that’s another profession, that’s another skill. You get into that space and you think it’s gonna be easy and you get there and it’s hard because you need to learn how to work in that field, how to be current, fully. That means we are now starting from zero compared to that scale of 10, we are starting from scratch which becomes more difficult.
what’s required from me is to be persistent and on the dream, because we’ve been there, we’ve been following and we are half way.

PORTRAITS | BILLY EDWARD LANGA 

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With only a suitcase;R500; a bus ride to Johannesburg; no plan and a ‘You’re done with your studies, now go get a real job’  in her ...