South Africa may best be known for its Dutch history and producing one of the world’s most iconic personalities in Nelson Mandela, but very few know of the rich Indian culture that exists in a nation longing to overcome its dark past. The story of the South African Indian is one that is slowly but surely beginning to make its way out of Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, and Peoria. One person who is taking that story around the world is Rajesh Gopie, a fifth generation South African Indian born in Durban. A graduate of the University of Natal where he majored in History, English and Drama and raised in Apartheid South Africa, Mr. Gopie says his early work “was under the mentorship of struggle artists using theatre for the pursuit of freedom,” including director Matsemela Manaka and playwright Ronnie Govender.
A veteran actor who has also starred in the television show Stellenbosch, Mr. Gopie has expanded beyond his ethnic roots, portraying the titular role in Hamlet before making his way to the predominantly Latino Los Angeles enclave of Boyle Heights to portray a persona of the famed Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca in Lorca in a Green Dress. Also an award winning writer of stage productions such as Out of Bounds and The Coolie Odyssey, Mr. Gopie has traveled the world hoping to find, through theatre, a common bond with audiences.
Mr. Gopie, who is currently in Los Angeles but soon returns to South Africa, talks to Buzzine Bollywood about Apartheid, the Indian immigration experience, and bonding with each other through theatre.
Parimal M. Rohit: Introduce yourself to us. Who are you and where do you hail from?
Rajesh Gopie: I hail from Durban, South Africa, an eastern costal city with the Indian Ocean in my face. I’m a fifth generation descendant of both Indians who came to South Africa in 1864. I’m at the eldest of three children to working class parents. I am first generation university educated. I’m a citizen of the world.
PMR: How did you find your way here to Los Angeles?
RG: I came here for the first time last year to serve as Artist in Residence at Whittier College, Whittier. I came back this time on the invite of the gifted and talented Jennifer Holmes, the director of Lorca in a Green Dress, to be part of this exciting project.
PMR: You have done a lot of great work in South Africa. How different is the acting world there versus here in the U.S.?
RG: Here, there is a massive film industry, which markets to the whole world. In South Africa we are nowhere near that with only a burgeoning film situation. Also we are a much smaller country, 48 million, here your population is around 400 million – very different market place. Our theatre is very strong back home. I think there is a huge difference between east and west coast here in U.S. The west coast is less about theatre; it is film, film or TV.
PMR: South Africa, especially Durban, has quite the thriving arts and film scene. What can you tell us about that scene?
RG: Durban is a city with European, African, and Indian cultural strains mixing. The theatre is inventive. Whilst Durban is not the largest of cities, it does have a good entertainment scene. We have annual literary, film, poetry festivals. Also, it’s a city that attracts a lot of international conventions such as the COP 17 last year.
PMR: Tell us about the plays you have written. How did they come about? What inspired you to write each? When you saw each production on stage, did they play out the way you envisioned when you were writing the scripts?
RG: I’ve written four plays, two of which have been staged. In Out Of Bounds, which has become an international success, I was merely aiming, as an unemployed actor, to tell stories from my neighborhood, personal experiences, etc. It came together beautifully under the directorship of American director Tina Johnson. It is a one-person show where I play 28 characters. It is a real roller coaster ride backed by great story telling. In my second play, The Coolie Odyssey is a play with a cast of eight and deals with the Indian immigration to South Africa between 1860 and 1911, when Indians came mainly to work on sugar plantations on the east coast of South Africa, then under rule of the British Empire. Indeed, it is wondrous to see your own creation manifest before your own eyes. I love what I create and it is a gift to be able to do this work. I really feel I can make a difference to the world.
PMR: Both plays have had considerable attention. What stands out about Out of Bounds? What about the story allows it to resonate with audiences both in and out of South Africa?
RG: Firstly, it is a universal story. That’s the first point of appeal. Then, the skill of the performance, one man playing 28 people in the blink of an eye, that’s the other appeal. The play itself speaks to any person anywhere having dealt with the deep nuances of family and rights of passage. The direct style of the storytelling is frank, uncomplicated and unashamed of the emotions, which come with unpacking a lifetime of memories, home, longing and separation.
PMR: Similar question about The Coolie Odyssey - how is the immigrant story of Indians in South Africa similar or different to other immigrant stories in Europe, North America, or really anywhere else in the world?
RG: I guess South African Indian immigrants share a similar history with those who went to Fiji, West Indies, etc. But the departure is that South Africa remained under the yoke of oppression in the form of Apartheid long after Indians in the above named places were free citizens of those lands. Indians in South Africa suffered tremendously under Apartheid, and this theme is ever relevant in my play, Out of Bounds. We were cut off from the world for much longer, but that has changed much over the last decade and half since the end of Apartheid. South African Indians share one thing with Indians all over the world that being the work ethic, which leads to achievement and success. We share the same family bonds and relentless pursuit of education. Off course, Indians all over the world are in some way bound to the motherland - India. The universal appeal of film and music keep us connected to an extent. But ethnicity aside, Immigrant tales resonate with similar themes while the context differs; the human being suffers similarly, emotionally speaking.
PMR: What is the biggest challenge you face in shifting from writing to acting? How is your mindset different when shifting from one aspect of the art to the other?
RG: I think they are very different pursuits and I don’t have difficulty in doing both simultaneously. I love acting, as it is a physical craft in many ways. It allows me to work my faculties of mind and body and keep agile and sharp. With writing, I can sit back and deeply connect with a field of creative consciousness. Herein lies the magic of creation. To pluck the unspoken, the unrealized in a placebo, and then unwrap that in coherent thoughts, ideas and themes within the structure of the story you are telling.
PMR: How does writing help you as an actor?
RG: It helps me hear the rhythms of the writer’s intent; it also helps me see the plays structure, desired end result. It makes me appreciate the discipline of what the written word is intended for.
PMR: How does acting help you as a writer?
RG: I write, as one would say, as an actor’s writer. I work each character every visually and physically. I can hear their voices, mannerisms, speech patterns etc. As an actor, my approach to writing is much more visceral and less cerebral. I hate talking heads on stage; I like movement, physical creation with body, a rigorous arousal of the imagination both in actors and audience.
PMR: You have done some television & film work in addition to the stage. Do you particularly enjoy one medium over the other? Which do you prefer?
RG: I have worked, film, TV, and radio. I love film only second to theatre, TV is not my favorite and I have often felt as if I was in a sausage factory on TV shoots. Let’s be honest, how much good TV is out there, really? With film, or at least the ones I’ve worked on, I’ve found the space and creativity to really develop character and the process was less hurried. I loved working on radio drama; I’ve worked for the BBC as well as South African Broadcasting Corporation. I love using voice to jump the imagination of listeners. People listen less well now than they did and 20 years ago, and it gets worse all the time. We are over saturated with the visual medium, as if we have to listen with our eyes. This has led to degeneration in language and speaking skills.
PMR: You are Indian in background but you are currently playing a Hispanic heavy role in Lorca in a Green Dress, which is playing in the primarily Latino enclave of Boyle Heights. Tell us how you were cast in your role?
RG: A role is a role and an actor should be trained to play whatever part he is thrown, within reason off course. Firstly, Lorca in a Green Dress is less realistic in scenario. It isn’t a well-made play, and I’m not playing a son of a white Texan. The play allows of diverse casting and my Indian ethnicity is dispelled because I’m not playing Indian, I’m embodying a character, or several in this case. Here I rely of my skill, and craft to create what I need. I am dependent on the director to guide me here. I presented her with options and we collectively decided on what was best for the play. I love the idea of playing in Boyle Heights. I would love doing any role in any theatre where these is appreciation and shared love for theatre. One of my favorite characters I play is that of Salvador Dali, the enigmatic and mercurial Spanish painter. I had only looked at photos of Dali and from that alone I could tell a lot about his physicality. I think I’ve brought him to life, and no one notices that I’m Indian - ahh, the magic of suspended belief!
PMR: I think it is great when an actor plays an ethnicity other than his or her own. What positive influences did portraying an aspect of the life of a legendary Spanish poet have on you both as a person and a professional?
RG: Yes indeed, it is great, that’s the point of theatre. I played Hamlet, and I didn’t have to be a white Dane. In playing aspects of Lorca, I am able to celebrate the non-cosmetic notion of a common humanity, which beyond myopia of skin color and cultural disguises, we all really want the same thing, safely, freedom, justice, and dignity. In the celebration of Lorca's life, we measure the significance of what happens when the voices, of poets, writers, singers, song writers, etc are gagged, or even worse, when fascists kill these voices, the repercussions impact society deeply, history shows us this time and time again. Coming from South Africa and growing up under Apartheid, I truly value the right to artistic value. Artists are doctors and surgeons of the soul and the collective soul of society lives a lot longer than the physical body does. Lorca in a Green Dress is testimony to this very philosophy. I love and live by this philosophy.
PMR: With all that you have done so far, what is next for you?
RG: Next ... I have to go back to South Africa for a feature film I’m starring in. The shoot begins in late September. I play a bruising cop!
PMR: If you could act alongside any actor in the world, dead or alive, who would that person be?
RG: A male actor? Om Puri or Alec Guinness (he was such a funny actor and well rounded human being) female, I would choose, Sophia Loren, she is the all time siren of the silver screen. But I would love to work with Indian actress Tabu.
PMR: Similarly, what is your dream role?
RG: Epic films, something from the Mahabharata, perhaps Bishma or Arjun, but from recognized roles in films gone by, Gladiator or any of the main characters in Shawshank Redemption. By the way my all time favorite Indian Bollywood film is Sholay. I would take the part played by Dharmendra!
You can see Rajesh Gopie in Lorca in a Green Dress through August 26th at Casa 0101 Theatre in Boyle Heights, California. For more information on show dates and tickets, please call (323) 263-7684 or visit the venue's website.