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Chihera makes mark on New York theatre stages

Dakarai Mashava

Special Features Editor 


ZIMBABWE-BORN actress, Vongai Shava, is steadily making a name for herself in New York City where she has featured in a number of acclaimed theatre productions and films.

Vongai, who was raised in the United Kingdom and China, walked away with the Best Drama Actress accolade at the 2018 Independent Television Festival for her role in the immigration-inspired short drama-Patiri In The Promised Land.

The American Academy of Dramatic Arts-trained actress, who prides herself on being a Chihera, recently spoke to Daily News on Sunday’s Dakarai Mashava.

Below are excerpts of the interview:

QUESTION (Q):  At what stage of your life did it dawn on you that you would pursue a career in the arts?

ANSWER (A): For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to visually share people’s stories with the world. If I was not glued to the television, I was reading the many books my mother bought me or learning lyrics to the music my father wanted me to know. However, it was in school when I performed in the Shakespeare play, Othello that I truly discovered there was nothing else in the world I wanted to do but perform.

Q: Who and what influenced you to be an artist?     

A: Growing up my father used to recite lines from his favourite films expressing how much they amused him and had an effect on his life. Just as Marlon Brando is remembered for his intimidating persona Don Corleone in The Godfather and Whoopi Goldberg as the whimsical Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act, I aspired to be remembered for my own roles and also for writing unforgettable one-liners. Watching TV programmmes and films or rare trips to the theatre were an escape for me. I found myself emotionally investing in the characters and their world. To this day, I still feel that way with the right piece of art, forever changed in the best way. As an artist, I am most excited by stories that give me the opportunity to celebrate underrepresented cultures, give a voice to the voiceless and move the world forward.

Vongai on the set of Patiri In The Promised Land


Q: Since you largely grew up away from Zimbabwe, in China and the United Kingdom, how strong is your bond with your country of birth?

A: Even though I had a very international upbringing, my parents made sure to teach my brother and I about Zimbabwean culture. During Christmas time we would go and stay kumusha visiting my mbuya. I also grew up around Zimbabwean communities in the diaspora so that helped solidify my bond to the country. When I last lived in Zimbabwe, I was a graduate intern at the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe Trust and got the chance to see Oliver Mtukudzi perform at HIFA. I am of the belief that just as there is no one type of Black person, there is no one type of Zimbabwean. I accept and celebrate all of our differences, for that reason I have been connecting and collaborating with other US-based Zimbabwean artists during this quarantine season.

Q: Which part of Zimbabwe is your family from?

A: My mother was born in Mutare and comes from Nyanga while my father’s family is from Masvingo.

Q: Your last name -Shava-suggests that you are Chihera of Mhofu/Eland totem, is that true?

A: It is! The Eland is the largest of the antelopes which I find very cool. They are majestic but also Ox-like. It reminds me of a quote from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘And though she be but little, she is fierce.’ which I feel encapsulates my personality very well.

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Q: It is claimed that the Chiheras were the only females in Old-world Zimbabwe allowed to sit in court by their male counterparts.  Do you think being Chihera is one of the reasons why you are very passionate about women rights?

A: I did not know this about the Chihera women but it makes perfect sense to me. I am actually very passionate and vocal about women’s rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment. This is partly because I was raised by such strong women and partly because women hold the key to all human life. It is mind-blowing to me that we live in a world that has tried to dictate a woman’s role or choice when women are the backbone of our communities. I am proud to have a book shelf of titles written by women and especially Black women. More Than Enough by Elaine Welteroth will not disappoint.

Q: Did you enjoy your role in Black Sparta, why?

A: My role as Ebele in Black Sparta was one of the most challenging in my life. It was a very physical role that involved stage combat and practising my bow and arrow. However it was rewarding to learn about the mighty Dahomey Warriors and perform at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina.

Vongai on the Actors Society Red Carpet


Q: Which theatre productions have you been involved in?

A: I am grateful to have been in a number of productions. Aside from Black Sparta, I starred in The Refugee Plays which premiered at the FRIGID Festival in New York City, Imagine at Theatre For The New City, and a staged reading of Toasting Scotty at the famed The Actors Studio opposite actor Paul Guilfoyle (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) among other projects.

Q: Since you began acting, which has been your most memorable role?

A: My most memorable role was definitely Asja in The Refugee Plays, I remember leaving the stage at the end of every performance and going to hug one of my cast mates as a way to release the character and return to myself. I did so much research on the refugee crisis and gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was an honour and a privilege to tell Asja’s story.

Q:  What are the plans for the future?

A: Patiri In the Promised Land, the film for which I won an award for Best Lead Actress, has been in talks of a television series adaptation and there are other projects in the pipeline that I cannot disclose as yet. I am also auditioning for more roles in television and have started writing my own screenplays during quarantine.

I would love to start my own media company in the vein of Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine that produces podcasts and original content centered on women’s empowerment and youthful voices from the African diaspora.

Q: Danai Gurira and Sibongile Mlambo have done very well in America. Are they an inspiration to you? Are you in touch with them?

A: I have read all of Danai Gurira’s published works and had the honour of watching her play, Eclipsed on International Women’s Day 2015 when it was on Broadway. I also wept when I saw her in Black Panther, the work she is doing out here is absolutely inspirational. I have not yet had the honour of meeting or working with her but I have met several people who have. It will happen, I know it will. Sibongile is killing it!  I connected with her in December over Instagram then we were formally introduced by Mirirai Sithole (another great Zimbabwean actor/ producer to know) and we have become good friends over FaceTime. Funnily enough we discovered we had the same voiceover audition for a video game and she booked it. I was so proud when I found out she got it because when one of us wins we all win. Pamberi! #ZimExcellence

Q:  Apart from theatre, you are also a singer and writer. But isn’t theatre overshadowing your singing and writing careers?

A:I am also a singer and writer however I am primarily an actor. I don’t see acting as overshadowing as I have auditioned for and performed roles where the character sings. I often use music in my audition preparation and rehearsal process to help me connect emotionally to a character.  I believe music is the most honest form of self-expression. As for writing, I recently penned and recorded a poetic piece titled ‘Quarantine Is’ which premiered at the Global Forms Theatre Festival sponsored by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater via Zoom. The piece details my experiences during the earlier portion of the pandemic. If you listen closely you can hear me singing towards the end. You can view it on my YouTube Channel and IGTV. If I am not actually working on a script or poem, I am constantly journaling my thoughts and ideas daily. They say the best writers are also readers so I try to read at least two scripts a week for practice and ten books a year.

Q:  Can you tell us more about your writing and singing careers?

A: I started writing in high school and was the editor of my school magazine, Goulash. Out of school my first internship and published article was for the expat magazine, Beijing Kids and I also used to write for the UK natural hair and holistic lifestyle publication, ZURI magazine.

As far as my singing career, I grew up idolizing the voices of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston and singing in the girls’ Choir at school. One of my biggest dreams is to record a Christmas album and a jazz album. I have used my talent to audition for musicals and musical films and used to sing at my friend’s cabaret for the experience.

I have yet to release any of my own music but I have had the pleasure of featuring on other artist’s songs. You can hear me on Deascent’s Compare/Contrast and Ohene Cornelius’ Blessed and Highly Favoured. Some of my closest friends are actually musicians and I not-so-secretly want to collaborate with them. Watch this space.

Q: Who is your role model?

A: Aside from Queen Danai, my role model is Kerry Washington. It has been such a gift to watch Kerry’s career from independent film to her television series Scandal to now directing and producing with her company Simpson Street. I admire how private Kerry is about her family and how publicly vocal she is about social justice. I saw her on Broadway in the play American Son the same night forever First Lady Michelle Obama (another inspiration) was present. I would love to play Kerry’s daughter in a film or television series. I will continue to will it into existence. I also adore journalist and writer, Elaine Welteroth. We crossed paths at different events in the past and then I finally met her on the day of her book launch for More Than Enough – we hugged! She is my soul sister in-my-head.

Q: I understand you are the first born in your family. Can you tell us more about your siblings and parents? Are they also in the arts?

A:I have a younger brother at university, he is not in the arts but we bond over our love of the Marvel Universe and hip-hop music. His favourite superhero has always been Spiderman, I’m a Captain America type of girl. His favourite rapper is Drake and mine is Dsmoke. My parents are not in the arts but they are major patrons of the arts. They would see me in school plays and choir performances when I was growing up. Now when we are altogether at Christmas we bond over films and the latest food competition shows, our favourite is Nailed It!

Q:  Anything else about Vongai Shava which you think Zimbabweans should know about?

A: A fun fact that not many people know is that my first on-screen job was starring in an advert for the drink Quench!

As a Zimbabwean, I find it especially important to be in this industry so I can be able to tell our community’s stories and help give them a global platform. I encourage young Zimbabweans interested in the arts to start as early as they can by writing down their ideas, making short films, reading books and watching artist interviews online. I also encourage all parents to be more supportive of the arts and arts education in the ways that they are able.

Young Zimbabwean artists can be sure to check me out on Instagram at @vongaiofficial. I do check my DMs and I’ve connected with so many Zimbabweans across the world there including the crew at @MADEINZWE who are doing great work promoting musicians in the diaspora.

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