Mthombeni quit eating meat to prepare for role as a female assassin

One-woman show ‘Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater’ is based on a true story

25 July 2023 - 21:01
By Patience Bambalele
Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.
Image: supplied Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.

Mpume Mthombeni stopped eating meat for three months to prepare for her new role as a female assassin in the play Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater. 

Mthombeni portrays Zenzile Maseko in the play that opens on Friday at the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg. The one-woman show premiered at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, Eastern Cape in 2022, where it received rave reviews. 

The seasoned 51-year-old actor, whose roles include The Wife and Durban Gen, told Sowetan she is excited to play an inkabi (assassin).

Mthombeni said she began preparing mentally and physically three months ago.

Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater is based on the true story of Maseko, who was an IFP assassin in the 1980s.

She defined Maseko as a lonely woman and that life dealt her a bad hand.

Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.
Image: supplied Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.

Eager to master the role, Mthombeni said her research included visiting the former assassin at her home at Thokoza Women's Hostel in Durban. 

“It was important to prepare my mind and my body for this character because it is a one-woman show. Physically and emotionally it is taxing. I speak for one hour and 40 minutes. So it was important to be fit and healthy,” Mthombeni revealed. 

“I lived on a vegetarian diet for three months to achieve this. I’m loving every minute playing Zenzile. I don’t get into it [the role], I become her.

“I found her living in a tiny room in a hostel. When I arrived, she'd had a stroke. It was difficult for her to move around.

“She did everything using one hand. I wanted to see how she speaks and make that connection since I will be telling her story. I needed to see how she does things and how she moves.” 

Mthombeni said as she listened to Maseko, she was shaken by the chilling details of her modus operandi.

She shared how she would be given a list of people to kill, and she would shoot [them] in cold blood. She called herself Isidlamlilo to steel herself as she killed a lot of people, with other female assassins.

She was finally captured by members of the ANC, some of whom were her targets. She was taken to eTafuleni near Inanda graveyard, where people who were taken there in those heady days of political violence in KwaZulu-Natal never lived to tell the tale. But she survived.

Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.
Image: supplied Mpume Mthombeni in Empatheatre's 'Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater'.

She spent seven months in a coma in hospital and when she was discharged, she hunted down her ANC attackers and wiped out all of them.

Written and directed by Neil Coppen, Mthombeni said the plan was not to open old wounds but for people to start healing.

The story offers an insightful look at the cycles of violence and revenge that played out across generations. 

“We know the scars are still there because these stories were never told. The show touches people’s hearts and they will begin the process of healing. Those who watch it should come with an open heart. Actors should expect a master class because I take my work seriously.” 

Despite her brilliance on TV, Mthombeni said she prefers the stage because it allows her to explore characters. She said acting on TV is limiting because you are speaking to cameras.

“On stage, once I am in a character, it takes over. In the theatre, I interact with people directly and I can feel them and their energy. I get the reaction from the audience. It’s a give and take situation.”

Born in Umlazi in Durban, Mthombeni started acting in 1994 and appeared in Julius Caesar in 1996. She has appeared on TV shows such as The Harvesters, Imbewu: The Seed, Uzalo and Z’bondiwe.