Pumeza’s rising star

Posted: March 9, 2009 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews

Red Winter in Gugs

Directed by:  Itumeleng Wa-Lehulere

Cast:  Pumeza Rashe

Review:  Astrid Stark

First published in The Weekender. 


Pumeza Rashe’s dream was to be a sound engineer– however her father said that if he has to pay the fees – she has to study IT.  So it was that almost single-handedly, Mr Rashe propelled his daughter into a career of high drama.  The young woman dropped out of college half-way through her studies and followed her heart to the New Africa Theatre Association (NATA).

In 1987, head of Cape Town University’s drama department, Professor Mavis Taylor, saw how the economic and discriminatory policies of apartheid led to the gross neglect of young adults in need of performing arts training.  She started NATA as a means of providing an affordable cure to the ills of the apartheid legacy. 

It is somewhat ironic that today, Pumeza Rashe is starring in a performance, based on apartheid in the late 80’s, which is rapidly galvanising her acting career.  Rashe’s one-woman show, Red Winter in Gugs, which was selected as one of the best performances of the 2008 Ikhwezi Theatre Festival, is currently running at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre.

Critics have noted Rashe’s rising star, and it is easy to understand why.  From the moment the attractive young woman appears on stage she commands a great presence.

Her portrayal of the innocent young girl in love with a volatile and charismatic anti-apartheid activist is as endearing as her naiveté is unsettling.  The performance lasts for 70 minutes and it is filled with humour, sorrow, and a scene of pure horror which is too grim to print. 

Rashe deftly flips between characters, the drunkenly charismatic boyfriend, his disapproving mother, her own mother the neat-freak, and the naive girl, ‘who doesn’t even like politics’.  She does all of this whilst dipping in and out of Xhosa and English without skipping a beat; this is where the audience participation kicks in.  The Xhosa speaking crowd whoop and cheer her characters on. They clap and whistle when the young girl does a raunchy dance with her boyfriend, portrayed by a cap, and they scream in horror and make clucking sounds of comfort when her mother’s house is burnt to the ground. The English, or rather, the white, audience sit quietly, stoically – nodding from time to time.

In an interview with Rashe she just smiles, “Yes the black people always laugh during some of the challenging scenes.” She is referring to that unmentionable horror scene. “I am used to it and just wait for them to stop,” she says.  “People deal with situations differently.” And we both agree that at times we laugh at that which we fear the most.  Perhaps it is a sort of act of defiance, or more to mask our fear?    “Sometimes people in the front row ask me questions like, “Why are you crying?” – and I really have to try not to listen to them so as not to break my concentration,” she laughs.

It takes more than just concentration to perform an apartheid era love story through the eyes of such varied characters.  During the play Rashe sings, ululates, dances, weeps and hollers. It gets very physical and she has a rigorous daily schedule when preparing for an evening’s performance. “After an hour or so either at the gym, or doing my dance classes, I go to the Baxter Theatre,” says Rashe.  She then does her voice warm-ups and runs through the entire play.  “Finally I go backstage, focus, and I transform myself into my main character. I become her,” she says.


As soon as Rashe finished her studies at NATA, she was employed as part of the Robben Island Road Show, however she always wanted to do a one-woman show.  After performing in Nosel’ Eyibethile Akakayoji, a Xhosa play based on a school set work book, she was spotted by director, Itumeleng Wa-Lehulere, who scooped her up for his work entitled Beneath Silent Waters.  After that, the relationship was sealed.  Wa-Lehulere directed her in Red Winter in Gugs when it was first performed at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2008. “And just like that I had my first one-woman show,” Rashe beams.  What’s next for this rising star?  “I will be in the new Grade 12 set-work play directed by Itumeleng, and hopefully we will take Red Winter to Grahamstown again this year.”

Theatre educator, director and writer, Itumeleng Wa-Lehulere, is also the director of the Ikhwezi Theatre Festival which has been in existence since 2004, and he seems to have a sharp eye for talent, and a deft hand at directing.  Ikhwezi has presented over 150 new works by community theatre groups. From its ranks have emerged professional performers such as Chuma Sopotela (winner of the Fleur du Cap Best performance by an actress 2008), Thami Mbongo, Andrea Dondolo, Andile Nebulane and Connie George.  He is also part of the Sizisa Ukhanyo Company which is a collective of creative artists that conceived and wrote, Red Winter in Gugs. This company consists of four men, and Rashe who was very much part of the conceptualising and evolution of the play. 

I ask Rashe who, unlike her character, did not grow up under the burden of apartheid – how it is that she portrays her characters with such compassion? “I have done my research,” she says soberly, “Sometimes it is very hard to understand the motives of certain of the characters.  Theatre has taught me not to judge people, or the choices that they make.  You just have to accept them.”

The performance really is not so much protest theatre as it is provocative playmaking; highlighting our vastly different cultures which are so clearly illustrated by the audience’s mixed reactions to the events and characters.


Sometimes Rashe will catch a lift with a taxi that passes by one of her posters tied to a lamppost, and inevitably there will be the elbow in her ribs and a, “Hey, isn’t that you?”

She explains how she puts her fingers to her lips and shyly asks the person not to draw attention to her.  Luckily she doesn’t live in Hollywood.

Red Winter in Gugs is on at the Baxter Theatre’s Sanlam Studio until 7 March.




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