Actress-turned-script producer Grace Mahlaba chats to us about her colourful career
and transition from acting to behind the scenes. By Kwanele Mathebula
My career was kick-started by the Shell Road to Fame Talent search. I had read about the competition in a newspaper in 1985 while still in high school. My two friends and I entered as a singing group, but they were eliminated along the way. I made it to top 10. After the competition, we were given a six-month acting course at the University of the Witwatersrand. Upon my arrival, I was encouraged to rather pursue drama because
my singing wasn’t strong. The course exposed me to the Market Theatre as well as the late director and playwright Barney Simon.
My first drama, Bophelo ke Semphekgo, launched my acting career. In 1987, I fell pregnant. And, because my family were staunch Christians, I was kicked out of our home in Alexandra. I then moved to Highlands North, where I worked as a domestic worker until I gave birth. Around that time, the producers of Bophelo ke Semphekgo offered me a job. They had seen me on Shell Road to Fame. I needed to be on set in Polokwane later that month. I told my family, and they agreed to take care of my baby. I returned home from shooting and went back to school to complete my matric. After matriculating, without the prospects of pursuing tertiary education due to lack of finances, I went to watch a play called Tooth and Nail at the Market Theatre. Lead actress Doreen Mazibuko, whom I met at university, offered me the opportunity to become her understudy. A few days later, she fell ill, and I had to stand in for her. I went on a tour to Grahamstown with the play.
My career was thriving long before I joined the soapie Backstage. In 1991, I was cast in the film adaptation of Percy Mtwa’s play, Bopha. It was directed by Morgan Freeman and starred Danny Glover, Alfre Woodard, Sello Maake Ka-Ncube and Eric Miyeni. Although this was my first movie, I could hold my own on set. I then went on to film Being Human alongside late actor Robin Williams, The Lion and spent three years doing industrial theatre. I also travelled around Southern Africa educating people about HIV/Aids. In 2000, I joined Backstage, where I played the role of 49-year-old Ipeleng. Because I was only 30 years old at the time, the producers were reluctant to give me the role. Things changed 15 episodes later when I found a wig that made me look older. I also advised the wardrobe department to dress Ipeleng in two-piece outfits, brown stockings and block heels to make her appear older.
I left acting in order to create stories. During my time on TV, I began questioning the way in which black women were being portrayed. When Ipeleng experienced problems, they wanted her to turn to alcohol in order to cope. This didn’t sit well with me because it wasn’t my experience of how black women dealt with their issues. The women I knew turned to prayer or church instead. This prompted my decision to stop acting and pursue a role behind the scenes, mainly executive producing. I wanted to be part of the solution; to write and produce stories that I was familiar with instead of perpetuating stereotypes. In 2009, I asked to shadow the producers and script-writing teams on Scandal!. A year later, I became a translator, and have since worked my way up to being a script producer on the show.