Show artwork for Authentically fitting in
Ratidzo Mambo with Maude Davey in The Heartbreak Choir. Photo: Jeff Busby

Authentically fitting in

Ratidzo Mambo is thrilled to be playing a Zimbabwean character in The Heartbreak Choir, but she almost didn’t accept the part. She tells us what got her over the line and how her character Aseni is driven by truth and authenticity.

By Paige Farrell

Secure your seats to: The Heartbreak Choir

It took a bit of convincing for Ratidzo Mambo to join the cast of The Heartbreak Choir. After first reading the script she was in two minds. On the one hand, she immediately connected to the story and to her character Aseni. ‘I was excited because I’m originally from Zimbabwe and I arrived in a small community in Far North of Queensland, of around 2000 people. So I felt I was reading something that I was very familiar with.’ But then she realised she would have to sing. ‘There’s singing? I thought, it’s a lovely play but not for me.’

Mambo has been acting since she was a child, and this is the first time she was offered a role playing a Zimbabwean woman. ‘It was so specific and I’ve never come across it before.’ But it also meant she felt a large amount of pressure to get it right. ‘I felt the pressure of playing a Zimbabwean woman and not being a great singer. That’s not how I wanted to portray this character, and I thought there are much better singers out there who are Zimbabwean who can do this job.’

What changed her mind? Mambo laughs as she explains that Director Peter Houghton insisted on a zoom call with her, after she said no twice to the role. ‘We actually just talked about the script and the story. I was gushing about the story because I’m a writer and creator as well and I’m very passionate about representation and character and story ideas.’ Because this is a new work, Houghton explained to Mambo that there would be opportunity for character development throughout the rehearsal period. ‘When he said that I would get to collaborate and actually have a voice in the show, it put me three quarters of the way over the line.’

MTC THE HEARTBREAK CHOIR photo Jeff Busby 1535 LR crpynqRatidzo Mambo with Maude Davey, Louise Siversen, Carita Farrer Spencer and William McInnes in The Heartbreak Choir. Photo: Jeff Busby

Holding a tune

When the conversation eventually turned to the choir, Mambo realised she had a very different image of how singing would work in the show. ‘When I thought about a choir, I thought about stage and performance, I had Broadway in my mind. But then Peter said that’s not what it is at all. It’s meant to be people who can hold a tune, or who are learning to. The whole point of the play is to show that anyone who wants a release or to experience a sense of community can join in.’ After they ended the call, Mambo sent Houghton a recording of her singing and nervously waited for his response. Of course, he told her it was absolutely fine. Mambo reflects now though that it was probably more than realising her voice was good enough that got her over the line. ‘I think it’s because of the conversations with Peter and him telling me what choirs were about and reminding me about the essence and heart of the show. And more importantly, why Aidan Fennessy wrote the show.’

When we meet Mambo’s character Aseni in the play, she and her family have been living in Australia for just one year, having moved from Zimbabwe. She is a qualified doctor but is yet to practice in Australia and works in the deli at the local IGA. She has two children and is eight months pregnant with her third. Mambo describes her as an ‘ethical, authentic woman who hasn’t compromised or forgotten where she’s from. She has such a strong backbone.’ But that’s not to say there isn’t a sense of vulnerability to her. ‘Aseni is a highly accomplished doctor, who gets to move countries to give her children another opportunity. But to leave a place where there’s a sense of belonging to come to a small town where no one else looks like you and to be pregnant in a new country – there’s a lot of fear and vulnerability that comes with that.’ Despite this, Aseni is driven by truth. ‘What I love about Aseni is that she still moves in a way that’s her. She manages to marry and hold herself in her Africanness and her Christianity – she holds front and centre the anchors that she has made for herself to move through this world. She doesn’t try to change those in order to fit in or to be liked. She’s fitting into this community authentically.’

MTC THE HEARTBREAK CHOIR photo Jeff Busby 1285 LR dylagfRatidzo Mambo with Carita Farrer Spencer in The Heartbreak Choir. Photo: Jeff Busby

A breath of fresh air

When talking about Aseni, Mambo can’t help but recall her own journey of moving to Australia. ‘I moved here as an exchange student when I was around 16 years old. Unlike Aseni, I tried to change myself to fit in, to blend in like a wallflower. Aseni’s not a wallflower at all,’ she laughs. ‘She’s so different to me and I love that about her. She is full of so much joy and life. Playing her feels like a breath of fresh air.’

What they do share in common, of course, is that they are both Zimbabwean. ‘This is one role where I didn’t have to do much background research, and that was so refreshing.’ Instead she turned to her own life and family. ‘My research is my mum and my aunts and the women I’ve grown up around. I know this world of the Christian Zimbabwean woman and of the educated Zimbabwean woman where as soon as you walk into the room there is a certain perception.’ So during rehearsals Mambo focussed more on her craft. ‘I was working on more of the structural elements. What does it feel like to be eight months pregnant, how to carry a baby, and working on body posture.’

Finally we touch on the show’s namesake, the heartbreak choir her character is drawn to. Mambo smiles as she speaks about the role of music and singing in the show. ‘It’s like letting air out of a balloon. It’s such a nice break between what’s going on in the moment. No matter what is happening in the scene or in the context of the story, coming back to the reason why we are gathering, to sing in a choir, is such a nice anchor. We all are breathing and going on this journey together.’

The Heartbreak Choir is on stage until 28 May at Southbank Theatre.

Published on 6 May 2022

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