For Ezra Mabengeza, success as an actor is not measured by how many audience members congratulate him on a great effort; in his mind success is measured by the number of people he can inform about the seriousness of issues facing the people of the world. When someone tells him they learned something new or became better informed about an issue, he is quite happy that his efforts as an actor have been well received.
Raised in the towns of Port Elizabeth and Polokwane in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, he grew up in a home with a strong, deep and profound cultural basis because of the Pedi and Xhosa roots of his parents. His father was an organizer for the ANC while his mother was a nurse. Both were strict in their goals for their children. As stern as they were, Ezra recalls the grounding they gave him, instilling a strong sense of self and self-discipline.
His family’s anti-apartheid credentials were genuine and strong as his father was imprisoned for his organizing activities for the ANC and an uncle led a group in the underground wing of the party. When his father was incarcerated, young Ezra was left to take on the role of the male leader of the family, spurred on no doubt by the example of his dad.
His father’s strong support of education was rooted in the idea that post-apartheid the nation was going to need young leaders and those leaders would need to be educated. His family sacrificed to send him to a private school where he was the sole black student. When he entered college at the University of Cape Town, he was able to learn other important life lessons as well. Although he was a student of economics, he was able to “dismantle” some of his childhood notions such as a sense of elitism due to his private school education. He stated that “Many people gravitate towards the beauty of the Cape”, unfortunately his stay there was short as he was offered a modeling contract in Europe that eventually led to the USA.
Growing up as a member of probably the last generation to live under apartheid, Mr. Mabengeza has some stark remembrances of that time. The brutal suppression system and the serious baggage that came along with it still has its hold on the emerging South Africa. He feels it is time for new leaders to emerge to carry on the development processes started by the late Nelson Mandela.
Probably the most profound and stirring memories occurred during a general strike against apartheid led by the African National Congress.. He was directed by his parents to attend school and his mother continued to work. At some point a group of agitated anti- apartheid activists came to his family home and demanded to know why the Mabengezas were not following the strike; Ezra’s father stood tall and told the crowd that his family were strongly against the apartheid system but they would not participate in the strike because his children needed education. Ezra’s recollection of this incident has stood to this day- the pride he had in seeing his father stand for his principles and his courage as well. As he tells it, that moment made him realize that there was nothing in life to be truly feared when facing obstacles.
His decision to leave for America was well encouraged by his parents who saw this as an opportunity to live, learn and work in a place that produced some of the greatest transcendent leaders in the fight for freedom the world has known. He made this decision carefully though since his grandparents had told him to be selective when changing life directions.
When he began to act, he states something awakened in him and he knew this was where he was supposed to be. For Mr. Mabengeza, the stage is a place where “things move”. Ezra remembers that while his parents never saw him play sports in his school years, they never missed a stage play he did throughout his early years.
Ezra’s current project is a short run of a stage play by the great writer from Martinique, Aimé Césaire, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Titled “A season in the Congo”, it tells the chaotic, turbulent and ultimately doomed role of Patrice Lumumba as the first elected prime minister in in the newly independent nation of the Congo in 1960. Directed by Rico Spieght, this production provides audiences with cautionary tales about nations desiring freedom on their own terms; the world is extremely interdependent and the former colonial powers still hold power of vast parts of that world.
The other cautionary aspect that emanates from this work is that the people must realize that transcendent leaders can only take a nation’s aspirations so far; it is the motivated populace that must carry the dream to its ultimate conclusion. This is an excellent cautionary tale in the recent days as the world slowly lets go of Nelson Mandela so that he can take his proper place as the head of African heroes such as Nkrumah, Kaunda, Sankara, Nyerere, Kenyatta and others.
Ezra’s other goal in his acting is to tell the story in the purest way, illustrating that life is never simple. Lives explored in cinema and on stage are layered and things are often very grey. As such he sees his future in the role of director so his next task is to do the hard work of learning that craft while growing ideas and formulating future projects.
Wherever the road takes him, one can be sure that Ezra Mabengeza will be well prepared and ready what with the life lessons he has already learned. I look forward to seeing him as he reaches for further success.
by Robert Bernstein.