Sophie Thoko Mgcina (1938 - 2005)
The Order of Ikhamanga in
Profile of Sophie Thoko Mgcina
Sophie Thoko Mgcina was born on 9 May 1938 in Germiston. She and her family were later forcibly removed to Alexandra Township, where she attended St Michaels School. In 1957, aged 19, she embarked on a lifelong career in the performing arts when she made a lasting impression at a Union of Southern African Artists talent contest. This marked the start of more than four decades of acting, composing, theatrical coaching and translating which have gained her national and international fame and respect.
Her greatest achievement remains The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena , the play adapted from Elsa Joubert's famed book Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena . In early performances of this production, she not only played two leading roles but also composed and directed the music.
The play became an instant hit when it premiered at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1980. It was re-staged in New York that same year and then again at the Edinburgh Festival in 1983, followed by a world tour in 1984. In New York Mgcina was given an Obie Award for best achievement, and was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for best supporting actress.
But “Poppie Nongena’ was only one of many achievements in her long career. She has played Petal in the London production of King Kong and Mama Belle in the adaptation of Ben Johnson's Volpone, and appeared in Holy Moses and all that Jazz, There's No Sugar Left , Brecht on Brecht and many other prestigious productions.
Her musical career is less well-known, but it is an important facet of her life's work. She wrote music for Jamie Uys's Dingaka, one of the first South African films to achieve international recognition, and various other foreign and local radio, television and theatre productions.
Mgcina has long been involved in language work. She has translated English songs into Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho, served as a voice and dialogue coach on such films as Cry Freedom, done voice-overs on many productions and written a book on the pronunciation of South African accents.
Her role as an educationist tends to be obscured by her activities in the public eye. She became a teacher at the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA). Academy in 1980 was appointed its creative director and head of the Department of Music and Voice in 1986 and in 1994 was given the task of establishing the National School for the Performing Arts at Dorkay House.
The sustained excellence of her extensive and versatile body of work has made Sophie Thoko Mgcina a doyenne of South Africa’s performing arts and an inspiration and example for those to whom she has passed on her knowledge and sense of dedication.