The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
LEE McHoney’s life has changed. Before she played Mai Noku on Zimbabwean television’s success story of the year, Wadiwa Wepamoyo, only fans of her music paid attention to her offbeat, humorous tweets and posts.
As Wadiwa Wepamoyo gained in popularity however, she found a horde of new followers camping on the comments section under every tweet, flooding her with inquiries about the Mai Noku and her devious better half Baba Noku.
They cared little about the well-being of Lee McHoney the musician. In fact, some were surprised that she was a musician at all. They cared even less about Linda Nyauchi, McHoney’s real name when she is off stage.
“It is a problem because there are people that think that I’m Mai Noku even when I’m not on screen,” McHoney told Sunday Life. “Even on social media, people will respond and ask about Baba Noku when I’m posting about something else. I just think they take these things a bit too seriously and if you’re acting in a popular television show in Zimbabwe it’s as if you’re in a reality show rather than something fictional.”
In Wadiwa Wepamoyo, McHoney was cast opposite Ben Mahaka, a man who most Zimbabweans still refer to as Tom Mbambo, years after Studio 263 came off the small screens.
Despite the increased scrutiny and attention, McHoney was not daunted. In fact, she does not think such behaviour is unique to Zimbabweans, a people that have been known to hold on a little too dearly to TV characters that they like.
“I don’t think it’s just a Zimbabwean thing. I think it’s a people problem in general because I remember a South African actress on Generations saying that people had been shouting and attacking her when she went to the shops because they believed that she was truly tormenting her mother in real life as she was doing on the show.”
The lines between reality and fiction, television and real life have become blurred for McHoney. As thousands tuned into Wadiwa Wepamoyo every week, Lee McHoney was being side-lined. For someone with a budding career as a musician, being typecast as Mai Noku wherever she goes or appears could be fatal.
She would not be the first to find herself in such a predicament with Zimbabwean audiences.
Aleck Zulu, for example, remembers how the role of Snake on Amakorokoza had people scared next to him as they believed he was the gangster he so convincingly portrayed on screen.
“People think that I’m a gangster. Sometimes people ask if I ever smile at all and I brush them off and tell them that I’m only portraying a role,” Zulu told Sunday Life.
Snake is a character that Zulu has found hard to shake off later in his career. To many people, he is still the violent, thug with a dangerous gold-lust. The role might have won him a Nama but it also earned him lifelong fear and loathing by some viewers.
The inspiration for the character had come to the show’s director, Cont Mhlanga, when he had seen a gold panner savagely attacking another while he was driving to Harare. Mhlanga intended the character, and the play which portrayed him, to stick in people’s minds.
“When I cast a character, I make sure that the character is never to be forgotten,” Mhlanga told Sunday Life. “I have an idea of the kind of actor that I want when I start auditions you will find that I will dismiss an actor just from the way that they walk when they come for the audition. I already know that this person is not what I’m looking for. When I cast the actor that I want however, people find it hard to forget them. That’s why you’ll find that people I would have directed years ago are still referred to by those character names even up to today. People don’t move on from them because the character would have been so well played.”
However, as Snake has discovered over the years, this can be a good and a bad thing. For example, when he appeared in court for stabbing his wife in 2016, it was a confirmation of many people’s fears, never mind the fact that the charges were later withdrawn. The court documents might have listed him down as Aleck Zulu but to observers he was once again Snake — a lanky, venomous agent of terror with cruel intentions.
For veteran playwright and director Raisedon Baya, realistic portrayals of characters become a problem when people expect actors to perform their roles wherever they see them.
“The acting is a world on its own and it has its own rules so when a person leaves that stage they have to live on different rules. I have laughed at people because if you’re an actor or a comedian and you attend a workshop, for example, people will ask, if you’re a comedian, that you tell them a joke or if you’re an actor they say act out something. But they never ask a doctor in a kombi to examine them or prescribe medication. You don’t do that because you know that a kombi is not his workplace. The public needs that clarity. Most of the time when they see the actors off stage or off camera, they want them to then act out their roles and that becomes a problem,” Baya said.
For Baya however, the biggest problem comes when actors, realising the popularity of their characters, decide to adopt that same character in real life.
“One of the things that is left out is the importance of de-roling after portraying a role. That’s very important. We always advise actors to take some time and become themselves again. With the kids that we train, we always advise them to take 10 minutes after they come off stage and become themselves again because if you just jump and meet the public after a performance there’s a tendency of then becoming the person that you were on stage because that’s what the public will be relating to.
“The unfortunate part is that there are veterans that know the importance of de-roling but unfortunately because our sector does not pay well you find that with most actors they find it more comfortable living the character’s life because the character is popular and it gains them favours which they don’t have in their own life,” Baya said.
The realities of actors’ lives in Zimbabwe — poor remuneration and limited opportunities — mean some actors end up believing that the characters they portray have better lives than their own.
“The character is more popular than themselves in real life. You find that the character that they were given had a better life than yours so you tend to want to live your character’s life because your own has nothing, its empty. You have no money; you have nothing so you would rather live in this castle that you have built either on stage or television.
Most of the time it’s unfortunate that you get the bad characters like gangsters, and drunkards, and actors end up destroying their lives because they are living up to that character. Sometimes they end up living beyond their means because they’re trying to live up to the flashy character that they were portraying on TV,” said Baya.