Success doesn’t happen overnight and it’s even harder to maintain.
A friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) but was in one of the biggest bands of recent times, once said to me -“one of the most irritating things to hear is that you are an overnight success”. I was reminded of his words when I read one of Tendaiishe Chitima’s interviews. In the interview she said, “my career didn’t happen overnight, so I’ve had time to think about my values”. Obviously the part about her contemplating her “values” caught my attention, however I couldn’t help reflecting on my friend’s words. So I started thinking about who Tendai was before the fame – specifically, before her breakout role as the lead in “Cook Off”, the first Zimbabwean feature film acquired by the streaming giant, Netflix.
Tendaiishe Chitima is a National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA) Outstanding Actress winner; Best Actress winner at the Zimbabwe International Film Festival (ZIFF); and Best Actress winner at I WILL TELL International Film Festival in the United States. But before she won all these awards she was on the Dean’s Merit List for Academic Achievement at the University of Cape Town (where she was studying a Bachelor of Arts in Drama, Film, Media and Writing). After graduation she appeared in “Jayson’s Hope” (2013), which was a top 10 finalist at the Afrinolly Short Film Competition in Nigeria. She then had a string of roles in short films and television series, namely: “Evelyn and Tapiwa” (2014), “Isidingo” (2016), and “Mutual Friends” (2016). This was all before she presented “Zimbabwe’s Greatest Talent” show under the name ‘Tensugars’. However, 2017 proved to be Tendai’s year of breakthroughs with roles in “Binnelanders” and “iNumber Number” in South Africa; “Fifty” in Nigeria; and of course “Cook Off” in Zimbabwe. Since that epic year Tendai has appeared in several productions that include: “Guilt” (2018), “Into Infinity” (2019), “Gonarezhou: The Movie” (2020) and “Working Wives” (2020), just to name a few. And she has worked with some notable directors in Film, Theatre and Television, namely: Akin Omotoso, Zaza Muchemwa, Tomas Brickhill, Daves Guzha and Sydney Taivavashe.
Interestingly, she managed to do all this work (and graduate with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from WITS Business School in South Africa in 2019) a year before Netflix picked up “Cook Off” in 2020. Success is rarely an overnight thing! It’s a long road to recognition and regular work, often paved wins, losses, self doubt and the unexpected. By the time fans and critics catch up to your worth, it’s only the beginning of your career- if you are lucky. Nonetheless, Tendai said she has been thinking about her “values” prior to her successes, so I thought she could share some of those ”values” with us.
AG: So “Tensugars”, you didn’t tell your parents you wanted to be an actor until after you graduated. Why all the cloak and dagger?
TC: Tensugars! (laughs) Honestly, I wasn’t sure of their support of it, so I waited. But they knew I was studying Drama and Film – but didn’t know how serious I was about those majors. So I waited for the perfect moment to tell them how serious I was (laughs).
AG: You studied Drama at UCT and fell in love with it. If I remember correctly, Drama at UCT is mainly theatre performances and not that much acting for Film. Are you one of those actors who believes that the best Film actors come from the stage?
TC: That’s a good question. Yes and no! I believe outstanding actors have an innate ability to act, however there’s always a need to harness what you’re born with. Going to drama school, studying theatre, attending acting workshops – all of that sharpens what’s in your toolkit and adds to the skills you already possess. The good thing about Theatre is that it’s rigorous and requires discipline. That attention to detail definitely makes for well-trained and seasoned actors. So yes, I may be a bit biased towards stage actors (laughs).
AG: Very few people know that you are also a singer / songwriter. You performed and co- directed some musical productions for His People church at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. Musicals, praise and worship have always feel strange to me. What’s it like singing and performing in front of strangers?
TC: (Laughs) It is exhilarating! You should try it. I actually enjoy performing on stage in general. Interestingly, there was a time in my childhood when I was shy but performing on stage really helped me build my self-confidence and communication skills.
AG: You are not shy about expressing your faith and how God has shaped who you are now. African (including African -American) artists tend thank God more than Western artists in acceptance speeches. Why do you think is the case?
TC: (laughs) Really? Is it really an African artist thing? I find that amusing. I’m actually laughing at your observation (laughs). But honestly for me, it is a very personal issue, so I’ll speak for myself. My relationship with God is an important part of who I am. It keeps me grounded and in tune with a higher purpose for my existence. So I am forever grateful to God in all that I do.
JP: One thing that I think you’ll always be grateful for is playing Anesu in “Cook Off”. You said you chose the role because it showed “ordinary life in Zimbabwe” minus the “politics, or the economy, or people suffering”. What aspect of Zimbabwean life do you want the world to know that the film didn’t show?
TC: That’s easy, Zimbabwe’s beauty! There are some gorgeous landscapes in places like Inyanga or Binga or the Lowveld that need to be shown off more. Filmmakers in Zimbabwe could definitely include more of our breathtaking scenery across the country. Not just in documentaries but in dramatic stories as well. Why not.
AG: Your MBA thesis was on “National Branding through Storytelling”. Thinking about Zimbabwe as a brand, what kinds of stories do you think Zimbabweans need to tell Zimbabweans about Zimbabwe?
TC: There are so many Zimbabwean stories that remain untold. I would love to see empowering stories about who we really are. There are Zimbabweans, locally and in the diaspora, doing inspirational work. They deserve to have their stories told by us. We have businessmen and women, philanthropists, engineers, tech geeks, entertainers, sportsmen and women, healthcare professionals, scientists, students, academics and space experts who have articles written about them out there that locals have never read. These are just some of stories waiting to be told! Ultimately what we need are stories that will shape who we are today and who we are becoming.
JP: Artists often need a manager, especially when it comes to generating more business outside of their Art. As an artist with an MBA, what free advice can you give when it comes to merging the creative and commercial aspects of filmmaking?
TC: Definitely, there often is a lack of information and practical advice for artists in the sector. I’d advise that they keep abreast with legal issues to do with contracts and employment in their field. They must also put a realistic value to their time, talents and efforts to ensure that they get fairly compensated for their work. And they should familiarize themselves with what Intellectual Property is.
AG: I heard through the grapevine that you have your own business that supports creatives from all sectors. Is this true, can you tell us about it?
TC: Well it’s all still a work in progress so I can’t share that much right now. But I can say the vision is to see a functioning creative economy in Zimbabwe. An economy where businesses and artists across the creative industries can generate sustainable income from their activities in the Creative Arts and support each other. I can’t reveal more than that. But I will give you an update when the time is right.
JP: Talking about supporting each other, the best tip I’ve heard from you is about “having strong and dependable relationships” with “a supportive family, mentors or like-minded purpose-driven friends, who care”. Creatives tend to attract fake people and fickle fans when they get their breakthrough. Have you ever had fake people infiltrate your circle since you became more well ‘known’?
TC: Oh yes! Unfortunately. But it’s not always doom and gloom. I’ve also met some genuine and kind people too. Growth comes with its challenges and if you’re determined to remain an authentic, loving and giving person you do need to protect your inner space from opportunists and ill-intentioned people. It is important, especially for your peace of mind.
AG: I heard that you like “happy endings” and you “love watching romcoms, because “you’ve been single for so long!”. So since we have reached the end, I like to know – did you finally have your happy ending with that someone special? Please tell us who they are.
TC: (Laughs) You cracked me up! But I got to be real. One thing I value now more than ever is my privacy, so shhhhh – can’t tell. Thank you for your enquiry – come again in twenty years. Thanks, bye! (laughs).