Ahead of the Zimbabwe Achievers 2012 on 28 April which will see her host the evening at the prestigious Grange Tower Hill Hotel, Zimbabwean actress Chipo Chung chats exclusively from LA to FAB Editor Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo and talks cinema, theatre, growing up with a mix of cultures and Zimbabwe.
Who in your own words is Chipo Chung?
God! Sinem, how does one answer that? I call myself an actress and an activist. I am an artist, a creative and a great lover of arts – other people’s art as well. And I am an activist. I met this guy once and he was like, “Well, have ever been arrested and beaten up? Well then, you’re not really an activist.” But for me being an activist is about looking at the society and thinking, how can I contribute in a positive way? Being a good citizen, I think, is important too.
What are you up to in LA?
I did this American series last year called Camelot. It was set in England obviously and shot in Ireland, but it was really an American production company so following up on that I have just come around to America to have some meetings and to start planting the seeds of working here more. So I am going for auditions; things are p in the air but I am just planning to be here a bit more often in the next few years. It’s my first real time in LA so I’m just getting my bearings.
It’s very clear that, being here, America has a diversity remit within its television and film industry. In every single production that they do they have to show diversity and you also feel that the difference here is that film and television is an industry whereas in London it is really about theatre and theatre being a profession. So coming here, you can just seen that there is a much more open array of parts and characters but of course you have to learn to be American.
There seem to be more and more African and Black actors on the rise both in Britain and across the pond – how do you see the future of African and black talent in film and theatre globally?
African-Americans have been contributing to the American economy and the entertainment industry for a very long time, so they have been coming into their own – there is no question about it. Form Oprah to Tyler Perry, African-Americans are doing their thing. And there are a lot of Black British actors who are very successful mainly because the training we had in Britain is outstanding. That’s why I cam to Britain – to train. I remember before coming to drama school, just watching British soaps and just knowing that everyone on a British soap could probably do Shakespeare. And then there are a rising number of first generation or second generation African actors, like Danai Gurira who just scored a part in The Walking Dead – she is an old friend of mine – like Lucian Msamati who was in The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency. They’re both Zimbabwean and we all grew up together in Zim and it is amazing to see how small the world is, how we could come from a small African country and see each other in Los Angeles and on press nights in London.
I think the onus and responsibility of African actors – and it’s a two way thing – in one way I think we’re going to develop by developing our film industries in our respective countries, developing African cinema and as diasporans, taking some of those skills back. I would love to see some of the films that get made about Africa like Hotel Rwanda which was a brilliant film, or films about South Africa, and I would love to more African actors in them. In Invictus, I actually thought Morgan Freeman was great, but to see all the South African actors doing their thing as well. But of course that is always the difficulty because to make a really commercially viable movie you need names, don’t you?
Being of dual heritage and having been born on a refugee camp in Tanzania, spent your first few years in Mozambique, formative years in Zimbabwe, later years in the UK, how do you think your life experiences shaped you as a person and as an actress?
I think just being a traveller and being a nomad is really just part of my heritage. My family came to Zimbabwe from China in 1904, so we’re really pioneers of multiculturalism and I think I have always lived between different cultures – between the Chinese culture and the Shona culture, between Africa and the West. I am a great lover of Africa and always will be, and I am also a great lover of Shakespeare.
You are the host of this year’s Zimbabwe Achievers Awards; how does this make you feel?
It feels great. I was at the event last year and I really loved it. What I loved about it is, especially when you’re far from home, your community and your people are really made up of people, and it was really interesting to go there and to see the same kind of mix I used to see when I was growing up in Zimbabwe in the ‘80S AND ‘90s, and that mix was actually very multicultural. I think over the past decade the lives in Zimbabwe have become much harsher between the different cultures, but actually I grew up in what was a ‘Rainbow Nation’ so it’s lovely to get together in the diaspora to remember that and to celebrate that.
Also the reason I am really excited about hosting it and supporting it is that we get bogged down as Zimbabweans in the politics of our country and forget that a nation is actually made up of people. And as Zimbabweans, we have a great reputation as being extremely reliable, entrepreneurial, dependable; we are great workers and we get stuff done, and it is nice to remember that’s actually what our character is. We’ve got fantastic people in our community, and fantastic young people, so let’s talk about that. It gets really boring when there is one Zimbabwe people want to talk about.
How can young Zimbabweans in the diaspora, in your opinion, help change some of the negative perceptions of Zimbabwe in the mainstream media?
Scratch beneath the surface, and you can’t deny that that oppression does exist – as it does in many countries. I think it is a very difficult thing for your immigrants, young diasporan second generation, even third generation to grow up and have that be all that people know about you and all that you know about yourself and your history. I think that’s really difficult. Other nations have similar problems; for examples young Somalis growing up… How do you deal with having ambitions and hopes for yourself when you’ve got a F as a nation, marked down ‘cause you’re from a failed state? I think that’s why it’s important to get over the definition of ourselves through politics and it’s important to change the narrative – for Africa in general – the narrative of who we are and what we hope for ourselves in the future and what we’re building towards. This will be by more visibility of Africans, Zimbabweans achieving whether they’re in the business sector or in the cultural sector. For me being in the arts, it is important that young people can see that it is not just Americans or the British who can be represented. And we need to learn about our history as well; there are things that have been disappointments about my country but we need the opportunity to learn about the positives as well. That’s why I have been so involved in the campaign to save The Africa Centre because I think history is important, and if we look at history, we will be able to find things that inspire us as we go forward.
As a Zimbabwean in the public eye, you have a lot of young Zimbabweans who look up to you. What words of advice would you give them to succeed in their chosen fields?
The Chinese in me would say, ‘Work hard’ but I would say, ‘Fortune favours the brave.’ We must have, as Obama says audacity; I think that would be one of the characteristics of any successful person. And the courage to believe in one’s dreams and act upon them. Bravery would be my keyword.
What is next for Chipo Chung for 2012 and beyond?
I think a lot more trans-Atlantic flights firstly. Then there is a theatre project I am going to be involved in later in the year in London which I am very excited about. I am going to playing a very exciting classical role – and I love the classics, but it is going to be a modern adaptation of a classical role in collaboration with Bonnie Greer. I am thrilled about it, so watch this space.
This spring, are you going to be watching The Two Gentlemen of Verona performed at The Globe in Shona (9-10 May)?
Oh yes, I will! Absolutely! That’s by the Two Gents, right? I think those two boys are really spectacularly talented. See, there you have an example of that ‘fortune favours the brave.’ Two very talented actors form their own theatre company; they’ve toured all over the country and internationally. And there they are with their own adaptation of a Shakespeare play – hasn’t been done before… How many Shakespeare plays have ever been adapted to Shona? I think these boys have probably adapted more than that’s ever been done before. I’m very impressed with them.
And our classic question with a twist – What is FAB about being Zimbabwean and what’s FAB about being biracial?
What’s FAB about being Zimbabwean, I think, is that, this is only the beginning. We’re such a young nation; we’re barely 30 years old as a independent country, so it is down to us to build it and I think this is really exciting.
What’s FAB about being biracial… I think it is why I am actor to be honest. As an artist, you live in an in-between place in society, in a place where different worlds meet. You may be playing a queen or you may be playing a slave, so you understand many different sects of society. I grew up understanding different cultures; it has set me up for a world that is so multicultural now.
To see Chipo Chung on the night alongside a host of Zimbabwe’s finest talent in business, entertainment, fashion and sports, don’t forget to visit the ZAA website now and book your tickets.by
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