A few times every generation, an actor or actress emerges whose performances can change the way the public thinks about an issue. Leleti Khumalo is such an artist. Her powerful star turn in both the stage and screen versions of Sarafina! changed the way people viewed apartheid at a time when it was still official policy in South Africa. Her portrayal more than a decade later of the title character in Yesterday swayed public perceptions about the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
Leleti Khumalo was born in 1970 in Kwa Mahu, a small black township north of Durban, South Africa. Like most black families there, Khumalo's lived in dire poverty. Her father died when she was three years old. Her mother supported the family by working as a domestic laborer. Khumalo and her three siblings lived in a home whose sole piece of furniture was a bed. In spite of these harsh circumstances, Khumalo found happiness in music and dance. She was a born performer. At an early age, she participated in Amajika, a backyard dance troupe organized by entertainer Tu Nokwe, a member of one of South Africa's most celebrated musical families.
At age 15, Khumalo was swept out of obscurity in almost fairy-tale fashion. When South African musician, actor, and playwright Mbogena Ngema was looking for new talent for a musical he was developing, he came to the garage in which her youth group was rehearsing to scout for performers. After seeing what Khumalo could do, Ngema simply asked if she wanted to do a play. She said yes. The musical eventually evolved into the international blockbuster Sarafina! Ngema cast Khumalo in the title role, and neither her career nor her personal life has slowed down since. She became a star and, eventually, married Ngema.
Sarafina! tells the story of a 1976 student uprising in Soweto against apartheid, and includes moving and horrible accounts of youth being tortured and "disappeared" by the white South African regime. Until she auditioned for the play, Khumalo rarely considered the injustice of apartheid—it was just the way things were. "When I was a little girl, I just thought it was natural for all black people to be so very poor," she was quoted as saying in a 1992 Premiere magazine story. "In South Africa, you don't think you're oppressed. You don't know until you get out of the country. They don't show what's happening on TV."
Sarafina! delighted audiences in South Africa. The show also enjoyed a two-year run on Broadway, for which Khumalo was nominated for a Best Actress Tony Award in 1988. Following that Broadway stint, the show embarked on a worldwide tour that met with raves all over the globe. In 1987 Khumalo was honored by the NAACP with an Image Award for Best Stage Actress.
Sarafina! came to Hollywood in 1991, with Khumalo reprising her title role alongside costar Whoopi Goldberg in a production directed by Darrell James Roodt. The movie was distributed all over the world, and become the biggest movie ever released in Africa. Goldberg, who plays a revolutionary teacher in the movie, gave Khumalo high marks for her budding acting skills. "She's extraordinary," Goldberg was quoted as saying in Premiere. "The camera loves her. I loved her, too."
Throughout the 1990s, Khumalo appeared in a number of Ngema's productions, including Magic at 4 A.M. in 1993, Mama in 1996, and the 1997 sequel Sarafina 2. Her movie and television roles started coming in rapid succession as well. She was featured in, among other things, Roodt's 1995 film adaptation of the Alan Paton novel Cry, the Beloved County along with Richard Harris and James Earl Jones, and she appeared in the television series The African Skies. Meanwhile, she was also discovering new outlets for her powerful singing voice. In 1993 she release her first album of music, Leleti and Sarafina.
Khumalo also remained very active on the South African stage. She received favorable notice for her performance in the Ngema-directed The Zulu, a 1999 show about the Anglo-Zulu War. In 2003 she stared in Stimela SasaZola, a musical extravaganza that enjoyed a successful run at Johannesburg's African Bank Market Theatre.
Khumalo's international profile rose to new heights in the mid-2000s with roles in a several widely seen films and television shows. In 2004 she starred in Yesterday, a powerful movie about the social aspects of the AIDS crisis in Africa. Khumalo's character, named Yesterday (because her father believed everything was better yesterday), is a South African woman who is ostracized by her community after being diagnosed with AIDS. Yesterday is thought to be the first move to be made in the Zulu language for wide release. "I hope it can be an eye-opener about the effects of AIDS, especially on women," Khumalo was quoted as saying in an interview with the Toronto Star.
Yesterday was received enthusiastically by audiences in several countries. It became the first South African film ever to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Khumalo followed up that success with a role in the movie Hotel Rwanda, a true story about a hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), who harbors more than 1,000 people during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which saw the slaughter of nearly one million members of the Tutsi minority by the Hutus. In Hotel Rwanda, which was shot primarily in Johannesburg and also features actor Nick Nolte, Khumalo plays Cheadle's sister. It was not a huge role, but the film received numerous honors and awards, including the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and Best Feature Film at the AFI (American Film Institute) Festival in Los Angeles. It was nominated for three Oscars, but came up empty when the envelopes were opened.
In 2005 Khumalo announced that she was taking on the small screen. That year, she joined the cast of Generations, a popular South African soap opera. She signed on to play the role of Busiswe Dlomo, the sister of a power-hungry businessman. While television presented an intriguing new challenge for Khumalo, she indicated that she did not intend to make TV acting a long-term habit.
Soap opera acting is a big change indeed for an actress whose career has focused mainly on big issues like AIDS and apartheid. But this is the kind of versatility that allows young actresses to successfully navigate the transition to not-so-young actress. Watching Leleti Khumalo grow into new kinds of roles is an exciting prospect indeed for her many fans all over the world.
At a Glance...
Born Leleti Khumalo in 1970 in Kwa Mahu Township, South Africa; married Mbogena Ngema, 1992.
Career: Actress and dancer, 1985— ; landed first professional stage role in Sarafina!, 1985; made film debut in the movie version of Sarafina!, 1991.
Awards: NAACP Image Award, 1987; Tony Award nomination, Best Actress, for Sarafina!, 1988.
Address: Home— Johannesburg, South Africa.
Cry, the Beloved Country, 1995.
Hotel Rwanda, 2004.
Sarafina 2, 1997.
The Zulu, 1999.
Stimela SaseZola, 2003.
African Skies, 1991.
Africa News, March 2, 2005 Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 20, 1992.
Premiere, November 1992, pp. 75-76.
Sunday Times (South Africa), January 9, 2005, p. 9.
Toronto Star, September 16, 2004, p. E2.
USA Today, October 2, 1992, p. 4D.
"Leleti Khumalo," Yesterday, www.yesterdaythemovie.co.za/leleti.asp (March 1, 2005).
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