Johannesburg - If you venture into an industrial cul-de-sac in Newlands, Durban, you will find the nerve centre of SA's favourite soapie, Uzalo. In a similar warehouse studio in a suburb nearby, a new drama, Imbewu: The Seed, has been sown and looks set to blossom
I am given a brisk tour of the Uzalo set, starting in the make-up room that is dotted with famous faces and ends in the labyrinth of sets that you see on screen every night of the week. These are tiny slices of the universe envisioned by the show’s producers, Gugulethu Zuma-Ncube and Duma Ndlovu.
We’re not here to talk about the drama of their relationship that has played out in the media, but to look at what’s going right – what’s made Uzalo the nation’s best-loved show and helped put Durban on the map.
Most of the smaller areas within the warehouse are used for different sets, as well as storage space.
At one point, we find ourselves in the show’s famous church and I have flashbacks of the shooting that saw the character played by the iconic Leleti Khumalo exit the show. Little did we know that a seed was germinating.
Creative director Mmamitse Thibedi says that, at the beginning of every season, the team plans what stories they hope to explore.
What makes Uzalo so loved by 9 million viewers a night?
“We’ve managed to retain the show’s authenticity. From the diverse use of the isiZulu language to the use of the KwaMashu and the KwaZulu-Natal landscape.”
In fact, love for the province is almost a prerequisite if you want to work on Uzalo.
The experienced alpha: MaNgcobo
Dawn Thandeka King
Back in the make-up room, I immediately notice Dawn Thandeka King. She’s sitting quietly on a couch while the rest of the people in the room are chatting away. Her demeanour is calm and sturdy.
Mam’ Dawn started out in theatre and began to become a household name in front of the cameras in 2012 with a role in the telenovela iNkaba.
Her character, MaNgcobo, has ties to criminal activity and a criminal kingpin for a husband. Look out for the opening of her nightclub Genesis on the show, which will feature a special appearance by DJ Tira.
Mam’ Dawn believes that what the producers have done by acquiring property and flipping it to accommodate film and TV studios will be good for the industry in the province.
“It will help grow the industry in KwaZulu-Natal. In the past, people would move to Johannesburg as it was the centre of the entertainment industry. Now, Nollywood is a force and Johannesburg is maybe saturated,” she says.
For Mam’ Dawn, Uzalo belongs to the people: “It is very colourful in the way it’s showcased. We go outside, we interact with the public in public spaces and we show KwaZulu-Natal in all its glory.”
The draw card: GC
Khaya Dladla is tall, looming and flaming. He’s dressed in character in full GC attire – a purple pant suit and golden brown dreadlocks.
Dladla’s character is the whimsical local gay hair stylist with a flair for the best in ratchet chic and a knack for trouble.
We speak about his character and how it has made him a symbol in the queer community.
He laughs: “I wasn’t aware. I was just doing another gig and then people would approach me and say I’m flying the pink flag. They said I was representing them and that they saw themselves in my character. Then I started getting invited to host the Mr and Ms Gay what-what in 2010, and I realised things were getting deep.”
GC is the second gay role the openly gay actor has played.“Weirdly enough, playing a gay person is still hard for me,” he says. I ask him why, and he explains: “Gays are very critical. Anything that misrepresents us, we get very vocal about. So every time I play GC, I must make sure I’m as real as possible. The research for this role was intensive. I went and chilled in lots of township salons with a lotta gays in there. I did not relate to that space.”
He grew up in a township, but he was a child star so he lived on the periphery of ekasi life.
I ask about rumours last year that he was leaving the series.“I was never not certain about the show, I just needed time out. I came up with the story of GC’s marriage and his klepto phase.”It was a gripping storyline that involved a degree of physicality.“As time went on, the writers really pushed it and I shot about 16 weeks back to back. I was just exhausted. You have to love what you do...”Which, he says, most of the Uzalo cast and crew do.
The new sparkle: Fikile
Fikile is the comical co-owner of the salon where GC works. Until now, Nelisa Mchunu has had a supporting role in Uzalo, but after the infamous funeral episode – the most watched episode in Uzalo’s history – Fikile has become a more central character.
“It feels good. I’ve been waiting to prove myself ... for my character to win the hearts of the audience,” says Mchunu.
“Fikile isn’t a hard role to get into, and I have done my research on the role. It also helps to work with the people I do. Everyone here gets along pretty well and some of us hang out socially. Everyone has a respectful relationship with everyone else – it’s almost like a family.”
Flipping warehouses to create TV sets isn’t new. Bomb Shelter, which produces Isibaya, has been doing it for years, but it’s catching on in Durban and spawning an industry that was plagued by a lack of studio space. Imbewu, a new drama that’s being shot just down the road, is doing the same thing.
“It has really opened up the industry,” says Mchunu. “I’ve heard of a couple more productions that want to shoot in Durban.”
I have previously slated shows for being trapped in studios, but, after my tour of these ones, I realise I was wrong. Perhaps the problem is that some are poorly built and designed – not the kind of real and gritty sets these are.
But it’s not just looks. A clear understanding of the audience and a passion for the province is what makes Uzalo’s world go round, and what keeps the viewers tuning in and the SA Film and Television Awards rolling in.
(Photos: Supplied/City Press)