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First-time playwright wins national competition as all-female finalists flip the script on women writers

First-time playwright wins national competition as all-female finalists flip the script on women writers
Sibongakonke Mama, winner of the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition, for her isiXhosa and English work, Ibuhlungu le Ndawo. Image: Frits Visser

The Distell National Playwright competition recognised five young female playwrights as the finalists this year. The winner, Sibongakonke Mama, said ‘it is a myth that people who have important thoughts and intentions about playwriting in this country are men – this is showing us that the women are there’.

Sibongakonke Mama, a 33-year-old investigative journalist from Gcuwa, Eastern Cape, had never written a play before. 

But on 27 October, she won the Distell National Playwright Competition – now her first submission of a script will be brought to life at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda in July 2023.

She will also receive close mentorship and extensive rehearsals in preparation for bringing the script to the stage, as well as an award of R25,000, according to competition facilitator Nobesuthu Rayi. 

“This is an important theatrical showcase that acts as a springboard for new talent and shines a spotlight on a new voice in South African scriptwriting,” said Rayi. “We hope her work will be picked up by producers with a view to staging it across the country so it can be shared widely with South African audiences.” 

For the first time in the competition’s history, all the finalists were women, making a statement on “dismantling the common assumption that most accomplished playwrights in this country are men”, Mama said.

The five women were selected from a record 245 entries, more than double the previous number, according to a media statement, with submissions coming from every province and in a variety of languages.

Mama said she never imagined she would win, and it required “immense strength and resilience”. 

She almost dropped out of the competition twice, she explained, and because of the difficult circumstances and mental health challenges she was dealing with in her life, she was unable to receive enough mentorship.

Simoné Benjamin (Distell), Nobesutho Rayi (National Arts Festival), Sibongakonke Mama (winner of the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition), Phumza Rengqe (Distell) and Monica Newton (National Arts Festival)

Simoné Benjamin (Distell), Nobesutho Rayi (National Arts Festival), Sibongakonke Mama (winner of the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition), Phumza Rengqe (Distell) and Monica Newton (National Arts Festival). Image: Frits Visser

Event MC Ashraf Johaardien in conversation with Distell National Playwright Competition 2022 finalists including Nkamogeleng ‘Nkamo’ Lebeloane, Nokuthula Mkwanazi, Stephanie Jenkins, Scout Fynn and Sibongakonke Mama (winner).

Event MC Ashraf Johaardien in conversation with Distell National Playwright Competition 2022 finalists including Nkamogeleng ‘Nkamo’ Lebeloane, Nokuthula Mkwanazi, Stephanie Jenkins, Scout Fynn and Sibongakonke Mama (winner). Image: Frits Visser

Sibongakonke Mama, winner of the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition, for her isiXhosa and English work, Ibuhlungu le Ndawo

Sibongakonke Mama, winner of the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition, for her isiXhosa and English work, Ibuhlungu le Ndawo. Image: Frits Visser

The Distell National Playwright Competition has recognised and rewarded new, not-yet published scriptwriting talent since 2018. But Mama was the only woman among the group of finalists who had no playwriting or theatre experience at all.

“The odds were stacked against me,” she admitted. “I truly did not know that I was able to push myself this much.”

In prioritising her mental health, she made a promise to herself that she wouldn’t put too much pressure on herself and wait until she was ready to write instead; if she reached the competition’s required minimum number of pages for a script, she would submit it. And she did.

“Things that need to be written will come, and they come as they are and they will tell you what they need,” she said, adding that the play expressed itself naturally.

She said she was inspired to try playwriting for the first time when she was listening to jazz music.

“Jazz is a homeless music in this country, and when it finds a home it is a temporary home,” she described. “It got me thinking a lot about the concepts of home, migration, lineage and belonging for myself and for others in South Africa.”

Sibongakonke Mama, winner of the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition, for her isiXhosa and English work, Ibuhlungu le Ndawo

Sibongakonke Mama, winner of the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition, speaks about her isiXhosa and English work, Ibuhlungu le Ndawo. Image: Frits Visser

Sibongakonke Mama, winner of the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition, for her isiXhosa and English work, Ibuhlungu le Ndawo

Sibongakonke Mama, winner of the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition, for her isiXhosa and English work, Ibuhlungu le Ndawo. Image: Frits Visser

Her play is a poetic and movement meditation on “dis-ease, disease and alienation,” she said. 

The story is set in the fictional village of uMzimkhulu, in which three sisters return home to play as a way of remembering and mending familial fences after the loss of their mother. It weaves together narratives of oral tradition, grief, cultural and family history through storytelling, children’s games and ritual, according to the judges.

Mama said she knew it had to be a play, rather than a purely written work such as a poem or short story, because it required “tangible human interaction” and “physical manifestation” for it to authentically come to life.

“Everything I’ve ever written in my life has either been on the page, or in my head or my heart,” she said. “But this is something that other people can point at and react to and it will happen right before their eyes, and that is beautiful.”

She had also come to be inspired and moved by playwriting in a South African context in particular because it came with a particular sense of “urgency”. 

“It can be sad and scary, but necessary nonetheless. It makes the audience listen because it tells them that they need to listen.” DM/ML


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