Shaleen Surtie-Richards and the power of honesty

SEASON ticket to paradise: Shaleen Surtie-Richards as Shirley Valentyn in 2009. Photograph by Robert Hamblin, courtesy of litnet.

DESCRIBING HERSELF AS a “full on earthquake”, veteran stage, film and television performer Shaleen Surtie-Richards loved people, but she quipped that there were some people she would have been happy to poke in the eye. Unequivocal in her values, she was unforgettable in her stage presence, whether it was in roles of great pathos or immense hilarity. She died suddenly in her sleep on 7 June during a shoot for Kyknet’s telenovela, Arendsvlei in Cape Town. She was 66.

Armed with her guttural laugh bubbled by a lifetime of smoking, her distinctive dimples and her implicit gentle toughness, Surtie-Richards rose to the attention of South African audiences with Fiela se Kind in 1988, a film directed by Katinka Heyns, where she gave earthy life to the eponymous character, Fiela Komoetie, in the Dalene Matthee novel. Her skin colour and her roots saw her type-cast as “a brown maid”. But hers was an implacable dream to be out there in the theatre world and she ran with the stereotypes and honed her performances, rendering herself unique and cherished.

Surtie-Richards’s ‘Fiela’ became a role model to so many young South Africans – not only for the raw passion with which she reprised it, or for the way that she allowed Fiela to creep into a South African litany of literary heroes known and loved by more than the book-reading world. As she developed her career and her repertoire, so did she in turn become an icon for millions of people who nursed their own dreams of their specialness quietly and out of harm’s way. Surtie-Richards was a performer with the skill to reach to the heart of a character and lend it humanity that was incomparable.

Fiela se Kind is a quintessential tale about racial bias. Surtie-Richards’s place in it redefined what it meant to be a South African. It was the late 1980s and the country was awash in a State of Emergency. But she brought the notion of love that overreaches imposed boundaries to audiences on the ground. An appreciation of the story was not about political machinations in the air; rather, it was about real notions that the average film watcher could relate to.

Some 30 years after her interpretation of Fiela on film, she had the priceless opportunity to revisit the character on stage, which she cherished. It was performed under the direction of Frans Swart and staged nationally to full houses.

As Ester “Nenna” Willemse for 18 years on South African TV soapie Egoli, she found a place in everyone’s heart. And the hilarity of an encounter between Nenna and Elsa (played by the late Hannah Botha) over some weed cookies, remains at the top of the scale of comedic timing and empathy with the stoned. Her career trajectory contains a list of theatre credits that beggar belief, given her difficult financial circumstances toward the end of her life. From works by Pieter-Dirk Uys to others by William Shakespeare, from the pantomime to local TV comedy, Surtie-Richards was a dab hand at it all. She honed her skill with impeccable trust in herself and her character, allowing it to bleed into a universal sense of realness that everyone understands.

With an adoration for fabulous false eyelashes, an ability to swear and laugh like no one else, Surtie Richards deemed Kathy Bates her most revered actress, but claimed her elderly mother – who died in 2014 – as her role model. Indeed, it was her mother who encouraged Surtie-Richards’s passion in performance. She worked for the then Department of Coloured Affairs, which had started an amateur theatre group. Surtie-Richards joined in “net om haar te please” (just to please her) and the theatre bug bit hard. Between 1974 and 1984, Surtie Richards took part in amateur theatre productions, until she had earned enough of the industry’s respect (and enough confidence of her own) to take on the big guns.

Born on 7 May 1955 in the Northern Cape town of Upington, to a couple who were both educators, Surtie Richards was schooled in Cape Town and developed her own performance acumen. Because she was not white, she was not allowed to be admitted to music school and she learnt piano and ballet privately.

Her performance as Hester in Hallo and Koebaai (an Afrikaans version of Athol Fugard’s play Hello and Goodbye) earned her a Fleur du Cap award in 1985; the first of over 40 accolades from the industry. Shirley in Shirley Valentyn (an Afrikaans version of Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine of 1989) was another iconic character she brought to the so-called coloured community and broader South Africa in 2009, lending local colour to a timeless and outrageous fictional woman.

Surtie-Richards was the kind of person who would approach a stranger who had been bullied by Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, to apologise for the behaviour of her compatriots and take the time to explain that not all Afrikaans-speakers were so rude. She was very fierce in proclaiming that fame, fortune and glory were not the reasons to be in the theatre industry – that it was about the craft itself. Ironically, this was a dictum which found her financially destitute and without the comfort of medical aid. She was told that her health was precarious and that she needed to be in hospital, but it was a luxury she alas could not afford.

Her Pekingese dogs, Tatiana and Tristan, gave her the unconditional love, she said in an interview, that was not possible from human acquaintances. She leaves her brother Lionel, sisters-in-law Lavina and Liz, her nephew Lester Surtie and nieces, Emmerentia Surtie, Michelle de Bruyn, Shalize Frans and Lizette Theunissen and a whole country – and South African diaspora – of nearly 40 years of fans in deep mourning.

A version of this story appeared on last week.

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