Patrick Shai: Actor, activist and a natural on stage — but a man not always at peace with himself
With the untimely death of South African actor Patrick Shai, it is time to consider his impact on stage, in films, on television and in society.
Sophiatown, Softown, Kofifi, Kasbah, Sophia…
Place of Freedom Square and the Back of the Moon.
Place of Can Themba’s House of Truth.
Place of the G-Men and Father Huddleston’s Mission.
Place of Balansky’s and the Odin Cinema.
And let’s never forget Kort Boy and Jazz Boy and the Manhattan Brothers,
and Dolly Rathebe singing her heart out — here in Sophia…
The Americans, the Berliners, the Gestapo, the Vultures –
They fought here and blood ran in the streets of Sophia.
Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane wrote their best, here in Sophiatown.
Tambo and Mandela walked here.
Luthuli stood, and a city’s people walked past, here in Sophia…
— Sophiatown, Jakes’ opening monologue.
When the young actor, Patrick Shai, first appeared on stage in the lead role of Jakes in Sophiatown at the Market Theatre in the Junction Avenue Theatre Company’s production (a work whose creation was guided, then directed by Malcolm Purkey) back in 19 February 1986, it was the announcement of a bright new star. While Shai had virtually no formal acting training, he was a trained dancer and his portrayal was electric.
It seemed that the actor’s reflexes were something deep and intuitive within him, and anybody who saw that production and his role sensed the arrival of a new star.
Another skilled actor, Mncedisi Shabangu, described this magic, “Bra Patrick Shai had those piercing eyes, and it was deep in the fires of the eyes that his acting secret was stored. Once he looked at you, I swear you’d be glued to him for eternity. That’s how powerful he was as an actor.”
Concerning Jakes’ monologue at the end of the drama about the destruction of multi-ethnic, multiracial Sophiatown as part of the grand apartheid project, critic and cultural historian Sam Mathe wrote of Shai that he had been born “in Sophiatown on 9 December 1956 and [then] raised in Meadowlands [a part of Soweto] after the notorious forced removals of the Western areas.
“He once told me how he once broke down and wept backstage after performing the closing monologue which lamented the mindless destruction of the place.” Even early on, his acting clearly tapped into a wellspring of his deepest emotions.
Enter Shai, stage left
As Malcolm Purkey explained Shai’s introduction to live theatre, the original casting would have featured another actor — someone already part of Junction Avenue’s drama collective. But based on filmmaker Angus Gibson’s recommendation, Purkey took a look at Shai and there was no question of who would take the role of Jakes.
Shai moved with an easy grace on the stage, even without formal training. (The other actor took another part in the drama; one well suited to his comic talents.)
In describing the circumstances, Purkey added, “I first met Patrick Shai in late 1985. Gibson introduced him to the company when we were looking for someone to play Jakes… so Patrick came in. He wasn’t in the [Junction Avenue] company at that time and he wasn’t in the improvisations [that were part of Junction Avenue’s creative approach]. But he came in and took on the role of Jakes with great gusto and style.
“He was first a dancer — and he became an actor in that season and worked with us for at least three years.”
Gibson, in turn, described his long association with the late actor. “In 1984, he came in for an audition for a television soccer drama I was directing called Jason Modjadji. He had been doing stints as a traditional dancer at Heia Safari Ranch. He stood out a mile from the other actors.
“He was handsome, charming, had a great voice and his talent was immediately clear. I cast him beyond his age as the corrupt owner of the team. He won the Star Tonight Award for that role.
“We became friends and he was very generous in showing me his world. He was already married to Mmasechaba, but he still lived with his beloved mother in the tiniest semi-detached house in Meadowlands Zone 3. At about that time he starred in the hugely popular Bophelo and became a household name in South Africa.”
Sophiatown takes the world
Gibson describes their travels with Sophiatown, noting that “the play was a hit and it travelled the world. We were designated roommates and saw both North America and Europe together — jogging alongside Lake Michigan in Chicago, riding bicycles in Amsterdam. Back then, Patrick was the better runner and the better cyclist.
“He was one of the founding members of Free Filmmakers, a nonracial film collective based in Rockey Street in Yeoville. He did his first directing there on a film called Brothers. And together with Ramolao Makhene, Arthur Molepo and Siphiwe Khumalo, made a very irreverent film about the European Sophiatown tour called, When I eat chocolate I think of you.
“In 1997 on [the television series] Yizo Yizo with Bomb [the film and television company that had evolved from Free Filmmakers], he was unforgettable as Edwin Thapelo, the caring science teacher who mentored Javas and ached to be with Zoe. The next year, I directed him as an abusive husband in four episodes of Soul City.
“Again with Bomb, he took over the role of Tiger Sibiya from Owen Sejake on Zone 14. By that time, his three children were grown and my children loved visiting the Shai family. Patrick was the very best braaier in the shisanyama style. My children like nothing better than the meat he cooked.
“Patrick triumphed in many diverse roles. He was an actor with extraordinary talent and the courage and ability to go anywhere if you pushed him. He could play wise, seductive, dangerous, innocent, wild… pretty much anything.”
Not your usual taxi to Soweto
In 1991, after Sophiatown, this writer next saw Shai perform as a lead in the locally produced film, Taxi to Soweto, directed by Manie van Rensburg. That film, created amid police security actions in townships, as well as what was then called “black-on-black violence” or “faction fighting” — and amid reports of a mysterious “third force” of black fighters supported by secretive government departments — Taxi to Soweto was an astonishingly optimistic film.
The ensemble cast was a who’s who of black and white actors often associated with the Market Theatre, including Ramolao Makhene, Mary Twala, Shai, Paul Slabolepsky, Mara Louw, Elizabeth Cawood and Marius Weyers.
Its story followed the saga of a middle-class white woman whose car has broken down on a Johannesburg freeway. Shai, portraying the sympathetic black taxi driver, Richard, rescues her — at least, until a thug hijacks his minibus and sets the hapless woman adrift in Soweto’s “night town”.
Her husband, meanwhile, tries to find his missing wife, but ends up lost in a rapidly changing Hillbrow, at the mercy of his own demons. But thanks in part to Richard the taxi driver, everyone is eventually safely reunited and the cast celebrates together in a Soweto nightclub, dancing away to the music of the African Jazz Pioneers — in a finale heralding South Africa’s unexpected, yet hopeful transition to democracy.
Sam Mathe told this writer that Taxi to Soweto had “definitely [been] a benchmarking project to reflect the kind of inclusive society we envisaged as a divided nation”.
It was South Africa’s imagined peaceable kingdom, on the screens of cineplexes, with Shai starring as a taxi-driving deus ex machina who sets things right.
By now Shai was being cast in other film productions — both domestic and international — including roles in a Hollywood version of Cry, the Beloved Country.
Breaking into TV
Filmmaker Andrew Worsdale said, “Patrick delivered arguably his best performance in Ramadan Suleman’s and the late Bhekizizwe Peterson’s 1997 film, Fools, adapted from Njabulo S. Ndebele’s novella of the same name, but set a decade later, during the final years of the apartheid regime. It tells the story of a disgraced middle-aged schoolteacher who is confronted by an 18-year-old activist whose sister he [had] raped. It occupies a vital place in South African and cinema history as the first feature-length fiction film made by black filmmakers in post-apartheid South Africa.”
Increasingly, as Gibson noted, Shai was adding another career focus to his work — roles in television shows, especially as post-apartheid South African television was broadcasting increasingly varied, locally produced soap operas and serials depicting the lives of ordinary South Africans. He became a regular in many of them.
There were also Shai’s revelations about his own life and the intersections with his television work. In one radio interview, promoting the Soul City series that was dealing with violence against women — and intimate partner violence in particular — he disclosed that a chunk of his television character was actually drawn from his own life.
It also seems that during the shooting of the series, Shai struggled with the emotional repercussions of the work, and that, in turn, seems to have propelled him into a campaign in which he committed to speaking out against gender-based violence.
Still, some of Shai’s statements about the emasculation of men sent mixed messages to listeners and readers. And the recent social media and press contretemps with musician Cassper Nyovest was puzzling for many. Nevertheless, it does seem he had a positive impact on lives through his campaigning against gender-based violence.
In the end, his journey finished too soon, by his own hand.
But beyond any problematic elements of his behaviour, Patrick Shai’s public message regarding GBV, as well as his fine performances on stage, in film and on television represent a legacy to be remembered. DM