Young stars hit the big time abroad — then Covid put their dreams on hold

David Gorin speaks to three young women whose showbiz ambitions have had to be deferred

18 April 2021 - 00:02
By David Gorin
Vongai Shava in ‘Hyena’ from ‘The Refugee Plays’, directed by Logan Reed.
Image: Jody Christopherson Vongai Shava in ‘Hyena’ from ‘The Refugee Plays’, directed by Logan Reed.

The Covid pandemic has devastated the performing arts industries. The careers of three ambitious young women, doing great things in the US, are in limbo. They face dilemmas and challenges, and must make difficult life choices. Artists and performers have an urge to express themselves. 

They dream big and bold. Until they can't. For Zimbabwe-born actress and singer Vongai Shava, work dried up suddenly, a shock as harsh as the physical constraints of New York's Covid-19 regulations.

With roles, awards and nominations starting to stack up, Shava can realistically be described as a starlet. Holding a BA Hons in film and television studies from London's Brunel University, and subsequently obtaining classical training at the world-renowned American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, she's impeccably qualified.

She's also eminently versatile: film, theatre, commercials; acting, singing, voice-overs. And she's now represented by big-league agency Take-3 Talent, with casting connections for shows such as Modern Love, Gossip Girl - confirmed for a reboot later this year - and The Blacklist.

"Since I've been with them I've done a lot of auditions," enthuses Vongai.

It's crystal clear: she has ambitions as large as her 5ft 2in frame is small. 

But 2020 saw everything suspended. Her life was impacted beyond performance opportunities and health risks. Unable to work, she was concerned that her US visa was in jeopardy.

In a surreal case of life imitating art, Shava had taken the lead a few years ago in a short film, Patiri in the Promised Land, about an aspiring actress desperate to stay in the US but facing Kafkaesque bureaucratic obstacles. Her performance earned the Best Drama Actress award at the 2018 Independent Television Festival (now the Catalyst Story Institute & Content Festival). The producers are in negotiations for a TV series, and Vongai is holding thumbs.

When Patiri in the Promised Land was written and produced, the narrative hyperbolised her plight, but it's turned out to be close to the bone reality. The feared visa shock hit late last year. Her lawyers advised that her O-1 visa conditions hinged on the certainty of work, and with the industry in limbo she risked being permanently barred from the US if she overstayed without employment.

Vongai Shava in 'Intimate Apparel', directed by Janis Powell.
Image: AADA/Mark Wyville Vongai Shava in 'Intimate Apparel', directed by Janis Powell.

So she left New York in December last year, worn out by stress, isolation, and reverberating emotions flowing from the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the ramped-up Black Lives Matter protests. She admits to deep sadness, a sense of time lost; creative energies and opportunities forfeited.

But she's strong and resilient, taking inspiration from her 2017 role in Black Sparta, an off-Broadway theatre production by award-winning playwright and director Layon Gray. The story is based on a real-life regiment of female African warriors in Dahomey (now Benin) resisting French colonialism in 1894.

And her sabbatical in Harare is rekindling her productivity - and hopes. She plans to launch a digital media project later this year; her cautious secrecy surrounding the detail is a sign of growing maturity. As is her registration of a company in the US, CULTURELLE Productions, LLC.

Her vision for the company is watertight: "To empower and amplify the voices of African and women-identifying artists across the globe."

Things are looking up on the acting side, too. She's received positive indications following her audition for an upcoming virtual theatre production. The play is based on events at Ellis Island, until 1954 the gateway to America for some 12-million immigrants. As a symbol of the American dream, it's in the stars, perhaps, that Vongai will land the role.

Enrolment in a personal development course has strengthened her resolve and nurtured her self-belief - a crucial attribute for performers.

"It's helping me cope and reflect on the past year's events. I've identified aspects of myself, my habits, that have held me back."

Una Eggertsdóttir feels she needs to push boundaries.
Image: SAGA SIG Una Eggertsdóttir feels she needs to push boundaries.

Icelandic actress, musician and dancer Una Eggertsdóttir was drawn to the Big Apple to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Paying dues is important, she feels. "I wanted to get to the roots of acting and theatre history, and Shakespeare and Chekov."

After graduating she landed the role of Jayne Mansfield in Marilyn, the New Musical, featuring in its signature song, The Battle of the Blondes. The show started in Los Angeles, then toured to the 1,400-seat Paris Theatre in Las Vegas.

"The Paris is a gorgeous venue. Our 22-member cast did six shows a week; it was a grand production," she says.

Wistfully, she counts that as her biggest achievement to date in the US. "For the first time, having a steady salary as a performer, I could call myself a professional actress. That felt great."

Her career started in pop music. At a young age she'd racked up four major hit singles in her home country, one of which, Dancing to Forget You, featured in the UK TV crime series Broadchurch. And she narrowly missed out at representing Iceland at the 2013 Eurovision song contest. "It's still on my bucket list."

But acting is what makes her feel that she's doing what she's meant to do: storytelling. "Music is easier to do on your own, whereas acting is collaborative. But I always love it when they intertwine, like with Marilyn."

A few years on from Marilyn, time has proved a fickle mistress. Eggertsdóttir garnered rewarding work in LA, voicing characters in the Icelandic scenes of Netflix's showstopper Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. She's also one of the backing singers in the film's hit song, Jaja Ding Dong. And she did multiple character voicings in the acclaimed Showtimes series The Good Lord Bird, starring Ethan Hawke.

"I can manipulate my voice and do a range of accents, so I did around 10 different voices in some sessions."

I'm sad and frustrated that I'm unable to return to the country that's been my home for the past six years
Icelandic actress Una Eggertsdóttir

But Covid curtailed her Hollywood trajectory, so she returned to Iceland in May last year, thinking it would be just for a month or two while Covid was resolved. Now, she could return to the US only with great difficulty: the travel and quarantine restrictions are onerous, and, like Shava, she must navigate complex visa legalities.

"I'm sad and frustrated that I'm unable to return to the country that's been my home for the past six years," she laments.

Still, being in Reykjavík has advantages. Iceland has a vibrant entertainment culture, so Eggertsdóttir has been able to find projects locally. Notably, she plays a recurring character in a major new Icelandic TV series, Sisterhood. Jointly commissioned by NBC-Universal and Sky Studios, the series will soon be available on streaming services in the US and UK, so she's hopeful it will be a hit in major markets.

She's maintained her belief in working hard, paying those dues - she's also co-founded a creative school, Skýid, which has been well received. It broke even last month, and she's optimistic of profit soon, despite having to cap class sizes due to Covid. Via Zoom, I can see her face glow with pride ("I've never started a company before!").

Pushing boundaries - that's what she feels she must do. Disappointment lingers, though - in her heart she would rather be exploring artistic frontiers. "It's something every artist should seek to do, to ask 'How can I push myself further, create something raw, more vulnerable?'"

Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene's costume designs for 'America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise &  Eventual Extinction of the American Negro', directed by Logan Vaughn, at the Barrington Theatre, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Image: Daniel Rader Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene's costume designs for 'America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of the American Negro', directed by Logan Vaughn, at the Barrington Theatre, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

When the curtain lifts on a theatre performance, the mood and stylistic tones that unfold are largely attributable to the craft of behind-the-scenes experts like costume and production designer Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene. She's proudly South African. "I make them figure it out," she says, having decided not to use a shorter or adapted career name in America.

In high school she realised she had a keen interest in fashion as well as storytelling. "You need a proper degree," her father insisted, so she studied a BCom (law and finance) at Wits. But creativity was a gravitational pull, so after graduating she studied fashion at the Istituto Marangoni in London. Then, in 2013, she obtained a fellowship to study a master's in fine arts (design for stage and film) at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

Along the way, achievements and accolades have rolled in. Her designs were showcased at SA Fashion Week in 2011; she established her own fashion label, mabu49; she was listed among the Mail & Guardian's 200 most influential young South Africans in 2017. But she's most proud of her work in American theatre and film.

Kunene worked with Spike Lee on a long-form commercial film, Brave, Vision for Moncler, and with a range of award-winning theatre playwrights and directors. Her designs have featured in productions at many of America's iconic playhouses, including New York's Public Theatre, the New York Theatre Workshop, the National Black Theatre, and Steppenwolf in Chicago.

"Working in these theatres has given me some of my best experiences. They've helped to make my visions come to life," she says.

Everything's changed now. Kunene returned to Johannesburg in July last year. "With the theatre industry shut it became very difficult, even just to pay the rent."

Zoom theatre has been a saviour for some in the performing arts community, but for Kunene's specialisation it's suboptimal and unfulfilling. Hands animating across the screen, she demonstrates why: her tableau is now a small, boxy space from chest to top-of-head, a confined canvas in which she's now expected, somehow, to create costume magic.

She also lectures part-time at Fordham University's theatre studies department, where she teaches a collaboration course to first-year students. Here, too, her creative scope has been whittled away. "Trying to do this in boxes" - she moves her hands again - "the students struggle. Theatre is such a collaborative medium. Conversations are lost and so is the heart and soul of what we do."

Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene's costume designs for 'Mies Julie', directed by Shariffa Ali for New York's Classic Stage Company.
Image: Jeremy Goldenberg Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene's costume designs for 'Mies Julie', directed by Shariffa Ali for New York's Classic Stage Company.

She's having her own internal conversation. "How can I be an artist in the creative space where I want to be - how can I make it work?"

She's trying, but there have been setbacks. She got a big break into TV - the costume design commission for season two of Netflix's production of Queen Sono. But it was cancelled. She's also perturbed by the lack of opportunity within the South African artistic production scene.

Feelers have largely drawn a blank, apart from offers to shadow the wardrobe mistress, without pay, at ad hoc shoots for commercials. She's hurt. "I have a master's, I've worked hard for seven years, including at some elite theatres. And I teach this subject. Now I'm being asked to shadow," she sighs. And the closure of the Fugard Theatre signalled for her that trying to transfer her talents directly into South African theatre productions would be difficult.

I have a master's, I've worked hard for seven years, including at some elite theatres. And I teach this subject. Now I'm being asked to shadow
Costume and production designer Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene

Without the buzz of busyness, Kunene confesses she needs to rediscover her sense of purpose. She's 36 now, richly experienced, disciplined, organised - and wise. She's pondering using her BCom qualifications as a pivot. "Maybe I can combine it with the creative arts. I'm shy, but vocal about issues. I can see a way to merge arts with advocacy."

She walks the talk of commitment to causes. Indeed, all three women share a passion for contributing. Kunene expresses similar emotions to Shava: "George Floyd's murder was a shock. I'm an artist, I tell these stories, but do they achieve anything? Coming on top of Covid, I felt devastated. At first I was incapacitated by the sadness and pain, but then I needed to do something."

She launched a Go Fund Me campaign, Ubuntu4AA, to raise awareness and monies for one of the groups lobbying for reparations for slavery in the US, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, as well as the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts collective, and a campaign in SA to save the pioneering black publisher Lovedale Press.

Eggertsdóttir's efforts have focused on raising awareness of violence against women. Her website features a memorial button for Sarah Everard. "I was mad at how little attention this was getting in the media in Iceland. We need to have more conversations about how women can be protected."

The pandemic has altered lives, livelihoods, and outlooks. Admirably, Kunene is cutting her cloth according to new normal practicalities. If anything, as she seeks to reformulate ambitions, reshape her destiny, her horizons are wider.

Shava, too, grasps this: "Life is so uncertain. I'm not putting things off anymore. When the industry reopens later this year, I'm resurrecting my performance ambitions. I have transformative art to create!"

Eggertsdóttir echoes the sentiment: "When I can, I will move back to New York."

There's the dream, flickering still. Carpe diem, Vongai and Una! Shosholoza, Ntokozo!

• For more information, visit Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene's website; Vongai Shava's website and Una Eggertsdóttir's website.