Performer Dudu Yende: icon, diva, sister: A tribute

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Dudu Yende (pictured) larger than life actress, performer and contemporary dancer, was known and loved for her irreverent manipulation of the English language. A passionate outreach collaborator, a loving mother and a generous friend, recognised as an icon, a diva and a sister to so many, passed away suddenly on April 24. She was in her late 30s.

The foil in the audience in internationally respected choreographer Robyn Orlin’s groundbreaking 1999 work, ‘Daddy, I’ve seen this piece six times before and I still don’t know why they’re hurting each other,’ Yende was also critically respected for her role in the film God is African, directed by Akin Omotoso in 2003. Her most recent work was another Orlin collaboration: ‘Have you hugged your Venus today?’ which debuted in Berlin last year.

“I had these five beautiful African big women being Venus,” said Orlin from her home in Berlin, “and the piece never got to South Africa, because all the venues and festivals I approached considered it too expensive. It really showed Dudu beautifully as a performer. It was my first piece with a big set. It was cast with a mixture of actresses, singers, opera singers… it had a great European tour. And it will never be shown again, now that Dudu is gone.”

Expressing devastation at the loss of Dudu, Orlin remembers teaching her at the Market Theatre Laboratory in the mid 1990s. “I did a beautiful piece with her class, called Shoes. And she was absolutely marvellous. She was an incredibly talented person. And smart.

“She was a very proud, yet genial person,” Orlin remembers. “She didn’t speak about her personal stuff easily.

“She came in on the Daddy work fairly late in the casting process. I knew I wanted to use her, but I wasn’t sure how. So I gave her some ideas and I told her that I wanted her to go out and get somebody to dance with them. My whole thing was to show black women as powerful women and she just ran with it. She was really, really lovely. And she was too unusual to be a headline act.”

Dan Robbertse, director of the Market Theatre Laboratory at the time that Yende studied there, remembers her as a committed but ever entertaining student. “She had one hell of a personality. Sometimes she was quiet and gruff and she would pop out of nowhere with a brilliant one liner that floored all of us.

“She loved to play with language, making nouns into verbs and twisting meanings on their toes. English was like a playground for her. She invented new phrasings for things that had people in hysterics.

“Dudu was often late for class,” he recalls, mentioning that she was slightly older than her peers in the theatre course. “We decided to handle latecomers by making them write a fictional narrative excuse to explain away their lateness. Dudu’s responses were always so fresh and funny that we always forgave her, and kind of hoped she’d be late more often so that we could read more responses from her.”

And she was full of surprises. Robbertse remembers “About a week after her graduation from the Lab, Dudu gave birth to her son, Bendu. No one was even aware that she was pregnant. It has become like an urban legend.”

The creative director at outreach initiative Dudu Yende Creations, Yende was born and raised in Thokoza township east of Johannesburg, where she also went to high school. A frequent collaborator with Oupa Malatjie and Peter Ngwenya, she was a performer whose enthusiasm and love for her craft spilled over with abandon into her audience’s awareness, and she was the kind of presence on stage that you just fell in love with, she articulated such an honest sense of being.

Yende’s elder son Bendu Melodious explained that though she had been of frail health since last December, doctors had not explained the cause of death to him.

Yende leaves two sons, Bendu Melodious (18) and Surprise (15), extended family and hundreds of friends.

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