Multi-talented Thembi Mtshali-Jones is recognized as one of South Africa’s most celebrated artists: as a singer, actress and playwright. Thembi was born in Durban, and grew up in KwaMashu Township where she started singing in school concerts. She was discovered by Welcome Msomi and performed in his original Umabatha (a Zulu adaptation of Macbeth). She then joined the Musical Ipi Tombi, in which she took the lead female as Mama Tembu and toured the world, including the West End and Broadway.
While in the US, Thembi met with Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba and worked with both of them touring Europe and Africa.
Coming back to South Africa, Thembi joined the Market Theatre in 1987, first working with Janice Honeyman in Black And White Follies. She co wrote with Gcina Mhlophe and Maralin Vanrenen and performed in Have You Seen Zandile, which won a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival. She also co-wrote with Barney Simon and performed in Eden and Other Places and Women of Africa, and toured with Malcom Purkey’s musical Marabi in the UK and the US.
In 1999, Thembi co-wrote and starred in A Woman in Waiting, a one-woman play commissioned by the Joseph Paps Theatre in New York, based on Thembi’s life story, created, co-written and directed by Yael Farber. The production won a Fringe First (Edinburgh Festival) and ran on the West End in London’s New Ambassador Theatre in 2001. It also performed in SA, Tunisia, Canada, the USA and Bermuda Island.
From 2006 Thembi has been appearing in the international production of an American director Michael Lessac’s Truth In Translation which opened in Rwanda and has performed in the US, Europe and Africa. For the Baxter Theatre run in 2007, Time Magazine wrote, “The raw gospel lament sung by Thembi Mtshali-Jones has extraordinary power, leaving the audience in pale shock as the interval lights come up.”
Thembi’s long television career includes starring in the long running sitcoms Sgudi’Snayis and Stokvel, which was nominated for the International Emmy (2004). Film work includes the female lead in Mapantsula (Best New Film at the Cannes International Film Festival, 1988), In My Country, Cape of Good Hope, The Wooden Camera and Themba.
In 2009, she was given a Living Legend Award by the City of Durban and the KwaZulu-Natal Province. She was a finalist in the Tribute Achievers 2002 Awards in the category of African Excellence in Entertainment & Arts.
Thembi had a residency at the Galluadette University in Washington DC, USA in l998. A second residency at the University of Louisville, USA in 2004, was so well received she was made an Honorary Citizen of Louisville by the Mayor, received a vote of thanks by the Senate of Kentucky, and the Governor of Kentucky gave her the highest honour Kentucky can bestow on a civilian by making her a Honorary Kentucky Colonel.
Her favourite moment was singing “Happy Birthday” for the then president Nelson Mandela on his 80th birthday in Washington DC, broadcast live on CNN.
In addition to being a cast member in Truth in Translation, Thembi has worked with the Global Arts Corps in Kosovo and as a trainer in Cambodia.