How Heath Minister Sheila Tlou juggles her official speeches with her acting scripts – TEFO BAOLEKI reports
If, God willing, Botswana Television commissions a sequel to horror serial Thokolosi, and “auditions: actors wanted!” posters fight for space in the MPs’ parliamentary bar, blame it on the minister of health, Professor Sheila Tlou.
An unlikely actor (politician, nursing professor and cabinet minister), the ever turbaned one has once again taken to Maitisong theatre, and going by her last appearance here in Gaborone Music Society’s production of the comic opera, Pirates of the Penzance, the box office is well taken care of.
Although the show’s publicity posters read differently this time, her role has not changed much. Her lines may have changed, but the role and the delivery is more or less the same.
She still gets to wear her signature turban and the African inspired costume designs that went with the Mma Ramotswe of the Penzance. In this Gilbert & Sullivan classic comic opera, The Mikado, Tlou enjoys a bit of creative autonomy though; she chooses her costumes.
She also gets to sit back on her chair, sip her tea and retell the story the way she sees it ÔÇô all the same. She has to salvage a bunch of punch lines that are somehow lost in the barely articulated lyric score (so much for striving for that operatic tone). And outgoing long time Maitisong director, David Slater, has once again written the role of Mma Ramotswe into this 1890 script, deliberately tailored to fit Tlou.
“Last time I performed Mma Ramotswe in the Pirates of Penzance, I asked Slater to write the role of Mma Ramotswe into the next concert again. I’m still Mma Ramotswe. There is not much change. It is only that I am now narrating a Japanese tale through the eyes of Mma Ramotswe,” Tlou says.
The Mikado tells the story of the love affair between Nanki-Poo and Yum Yum. Nanki-Poo is the son of the Mikado, the emperor of Japan. He wears a disguise to avoid being forced into marrying an older woman, Katisha. Yum Yum, on the other hand, is to marry an older man, Ko-Ko, the town’s executioner. With this opening conflict, the stage is set for the drama to unfold.
Perhaps for Tlou, this work is more like a sequel. Even with this follow up to her stage debut (as a minister) smacking of a cheesy typecasting rut taking root, Tlou was, nevertheless, so excited she had to launch the Africa Health Report on Monday morning in Geneva, Switzerland, and hurriedly jetted back home to make the Tuesday evening rehearsal. She has settled in the role, she offers, so much so that she would love to do it for the rest of her life.
“I was learning my lines on the flight back home. I just arrived this afternoon, got into Parliament and then headed straight here (Maitisong). I really want to do this,” she says.
Why this seeming fascination with the role, one may ask? The role has not changed much apart from the fact that she now has to juggle the plot forward alongside Botswana actor of the year award winner, Mpho Rabotsima, who plays the part of Charlie. Together, they engage in revealing witty dialogue.
“I believe in a lot of things that Mma Ramotswe believes in. She embodies all that I believe about Botswana; that it is a great place to live in. She stands for the nurturing of values such as botho, compassion, and caring for other humans.
She captures our appreciative and thankful nature. She is the kind of humble character that even expresses a lot of happiness for having been bought a second hand radio,” she says.
Mma Ramotswe is a character made world famous by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith in the now televised fiction serial, Precious Ramotswe and the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
Doesn’t she, perhaps, think it is time they gave her a more challenging role that would demand of her to be more than just a woman of traditional build, as Smith would describe her character? It turns out she wanted to audition for the leading role in Stuart White’s production of the critically acclaimed Broadway musical, Annie.
“I would have auditioned for the role of Annie, who is the caregiver of orphans in the musical. The problem is that it demanded a lot of time. I prefer a role such as this one (Mma Ramotswe) where I can learn the script by myself and come and deliver without many rehearsals,” she chuckles.
“You tell them that the day I become minister of culture and recreation I would have the time to do all these because I would then be doing my job.”
Maybe Gaborone is borrowing a leaf (minus the money and the big publicity machine) from the make-believe capital of the world, Hollywood. Actors-turned-politicians and vice versa pass for tired ordinary fare nowadays in Tinseltown.
Bollywood has also long produced its fair share of individuals who flirted with the best, and at times the very worst, of both of these very public worlds. A few notable names include, amongst others, Austrian born Arnold Schwarzenegger, star of action flicks such as Terminator, now governor of California, former Richard Nixon’s speechwriter Ben Stein, and king of shame television and one time mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio, Jerry Springer.
Then there is ex-White House resident Ronald Reagan as well as Law & Order star Fred Thompson, who sat in the Tennessee senate. But for our own politician, the stage comes across as an escape of sorts, a momentary breather from the overworked and understaffed surgeon table that is her ministry.
“This is good for relaxation. Just for a moment be someone else and enjoy yourself while also entertaining others. It’s a great experience,” she muses.
Tonight she has brought along her niece and daughter because she wants to get them interested in theatre. Not surprising for one who had dreams of making it big in the paid acting ranks whilst a secondary school girl. She had a good grasp of languages, she remembers.
Acting was what she wanted to do with her life, but when a shot at tertiary beckoned, there was no scholarship for drama. Left with no choice, she had to go for sciences. But she was not one to give up. While studying in the United States, she won an award for being the only sciences student active in theatre.
When she came to the University of Botswana, she became one of the directors of the UB Travelling Theatre and joined Capitol Players.
“I cannot stop now just because I am a cabinet minister. I will do this until I die. I believe things are looking up now for the arts. The Botswana Society for the Arts (BSA)’s government sponsored arts institute is coming. I would also be pushing for the arts to come alive as well.
My husband (academic professor Thomas Tlou) is also interested in the cause. He is a member of BSA,” she says.
How have her colleagues in the parliamentary suite taken to her flirt with stagecraft?
“My colleagues like Mma (Moggie) Mbaakanyi (a junior minister at education) who I grew up with, have always been interested in only watching my performances. I was just talking to them and they promised to come and watch me. I hope one day one of them would be interested enough to want to be involved in stage work,” she says.
At least for the few nights the show will run, a few backbenchers will get to see the inside of a theatre in this country where corporate and government’s attitude to growing the arts is more of a perfect study in institutionalized negligence. Perhaps one day, one ambitious playwright would take the cue from Slater, take the idea a bit further and cast a good number of backbenchers for the chorus.
Tlou’s theatre exploit seems not to be just a publicity stunt. She has earned the respect of her co-stars, amongst them Mpho Rabotsima.
“The first question I asked myself before I met her was whether she will be able to perform her role well. But she turned out to be a good actress. She has a good working knowledge of stagecraft. She has a strong theatre background,” he says.
Rabotsima, who is artistic director of Ramotswa-based Mama Theatre, opines the minister’s hands-on involvement with theatre would help bring a different perception of the arts to the country’s leadership.
“The experience would help her understand what we are doing, and have a feeling of what is happening and know what is needed; transport, costumes, lights and printing and design costs for publicity materials. She would know what you are talking about when you request for P40 000 to put up a show,” he says, somewhat tongue in cheek. (FPN)