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Feature: Pacharo Mzembe

With a string of theatre and screen roles under his belt, Pacharo Mzembe returns to the MTC stage early next month in _ Solomon and Marion_. Here he talks to Paul Galloway about the particular dialectic challenges of his role.

Pacharo Mzembe reckons he has an ear for accents, and it’s a good thing he does. Since leaving NIDA a few years ago and working across a range of theatre, film and television, he has only used his natural accent once.

‘Just once, in the film Summer Coda a couple of years ago,’ he says. ‘I went for the audition while I was working on Rockabye [at MTC] and did all the lines with an African accent, which is what I thought they wanted. As I was leaving I said thank-you very much, and they heard the Aussie accent. Then did the whole thing again in my natural accent and got the role.’

Although he so rarely plays Australians, Pacharo calls himself an Australian actor. And down the phone he certainly sounds like one, with a standard Aussie accent and a youthful, relaxed manner. Now in his mid-twenties, he was just five years-old when his family arrived here as political refugees from Malawi. His father opposed the interminable, erratic and bloody dictatorship of Hastings Banda and the family fled to Zimbabwe, where Pacharo was born. The Mzembes eventually settled in south-east Queensland.

At Ipswich Boys Grammar, where he also excelled in sport, Pacharo found he had a taste and aptitude for acting. A scholarship in his final year to the Australian Acting Academy made him think seriously about it as a career. Acting seemed a cool thing to do: ‘The role models were around, you know. There was Denzel [Washington], Wesley Snipes, Eddie Murphy, a lot of these guys.’

But those guys were American. One thing Pacharo’s tutors drummed into him at NIDA, where he had been accepted straight out of school, was that jobs for Australian actors were scarce, but jobs for African-Australians would be rare. But he’s done all right so far. Although he took the precaution of flying to LA to get an agent and plant a foot in the door, the good roles here have landed with pleasing regularity. On top of recurring characters in Underbelly Razor and Terra Nova on television, he has played on stage a British journalist in Joanna Murray-Smith’s Rockabye at MTC and a Nigerian priest in Gwen in Purgatory for Belvoir and Malthouse. He is currently gearing up to play a young South African man in Solomon and Marion.

To our ears, this might seem to require some sort of standard ‘African accent’, but Pacharo knows how distinct each African accent really is. He’ll have to do his research.

‘Oh, yeah, there are differences within countries,’ he says about the myriad forms of African English. ‘Africa is tribal and, although they will unite and call themselves Africans when they have to, on the ground there are massive cultural differences between peoples. South Africa is a particular case in that respect, because there are Zulu and Xhosa, and these tribes see themselves as very different.’

When speaking English, Malawians and Xhosa have distinct accents.

‘There is an influence of the Dutch that you can hear. But mainly the accent is more sing-song, because the Zulu and Xhosa languages are more rhythmic compared to the short, sharp sounds you get in the north.’

On top of that, his character speaks a fair number of lines in Xhosa, a completely foreign language to Pacharo. ‘Yeah, that’s going to be intense for me, because it includes those clicks,’ he says, demonstrating the characteristic Xhosa tongue on palate snap. ‘People where I’m from don’t have those clicks and don’t speak from the throat as much as the Xhosa guys do. My mum helped me out with a bit of it, because she’d picked some of it up. But I’ll need a coach, or some sort of native speaker to get it right.’

Most of the time, Pacharo takes a pragmatic view of having to play so many Africans. ‘That’s good for me,’ he says. ‘I am African and obviously I can easily play African characters. That’s my advantage. But there comes a point where you feel that the people who are casting are not looking too far out of the box. They have pretty narrow vision. They work in stereotypes a bit and leave me out. That gets a bit frustrating. Obviously that happens in America, too; you get it everywhere. I just have to understand that as an actor and make it work for me.’

Solomon and Marion is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio from 7 June to 20 July.

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