Big Apple tempts Zim actor

Zimbabwean-born Vongai Shava is making a go of it in New York despite a global pandemic.

For performers and artists around the world, 2020 has been a year of dissipated dreams and frustration. Sitting tight in New York, Zimbabwean-born actor-writer-singer, Vongai Shava – stage name simply Vongai – has been sidelined by Covid-19 and snared in the Trump Administration’s threat to deport non-residents without ‘essential work’ permits. And, as a young Black woman committed to causes, she’s also experienced the stress of shocking recent incidents of police brutality and the urgent intensification of this year’s racial justice and Black Lives Matter protests.

Although Vongai spent formative and adolescent years studying in London and Beijing, she nevertheless found it daunting to embed herself in New York. She remembers being intensely excited, but also initially being overawed and apprehensive – something akin to performance anxiety, perhaps. “But I wanted to get out of my bubble,” she says.

She travelled to the USA to enrol in a two-year program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the most prestigious drama school in the US, possibly in the world. Now, having lived in New York for nearly seven years, she’s still at the mercy of the system, and trying to ease fears of deportation.

The rules are complicated. She’s applied for an O-1 visa as ‘an artist of extraordinary ability’. This would allow her 3-year US residency, but in something of a Kafkaesque loop it also requires proof of work, ‘based on a pre-existing, longstanding working relationship […] [in which] your continuing participation is essential to the successful completion of the production’. The current administration’s strict controls include designating this ‘continuing participation’ as three years – very difficult to secure in a creative industry with project-by-project productions.

But she knows that providence can intervene. She met writer-producer Page Cooper Anderson on the set of a web-series production. Vongai had only a bit-part, but true to her nature and upbringing, she thanked Anderson in person afterwards. “She was one of the few who did that, with such intention and integrity…she told me her name, and I said you have a warrior’s name,” recounts Anderson. “Once we had a new president I realised I needed to tell this story.” And so was born the award-winning short film Patiri in Promised Land, with Vongai as the lead.

The movie hyperbolises Vongai’s plight a bit, but the narrative about time running out and the high stakes involved in risking everything to stay in America is real. Vongai’s performance won her the Best Drama Actress award at the 2018 ITV Festival (now the Catalyst Story Institute & Content Festival). The movie did a brief circuit tour, but is not available online because negotiations are ongoing for adaptation into a TV series. Vongai is hopeful this transpires.

She’s also particularly proud of her role in Black Sparta, a theatre production by award-winning playwright and director Layon Gray. Staged off-Broadway (Manhattan) in 2017, the play then went on a months-long, multicity US tour. The story is based on a real-life regiment of female African warriors in Dahomey (now Benin) resisting French colonialism in 1894.

“It was a very physical show, and I’m very little,” she enthuses (she’s 5ft-2). “I’d have to roll around the stage, bow-and-arrow in hand. That summer I built up a lot of arm strength!”

Vongai has recently changed agency, and is now represented by Take-3 Talent. “Since I’ve been with them I’ve done a lot of auditions,” she says.

During the Covid pandemic, an audition is on a ‘self-tape’. Vongai gives a rapid-fire run-through of what this means: a call from her agent or manager – get ready (sometimes frantically) by pre-reading and cramming an existing episode so she understands the show’s context – set up cell-phone, camera, tripod – and the script to read, of course. (usually three ‘sides’, the New York trade-speak for an audition page reading, although for a quick one-liner it’s just one ‘side’) – arrange for a friend to read the scene’s other lines for her via Zoom – and then she video-records herself.

This is breathless – and then it’s about waiting, with bated breath, for a call-back.

She can’t tell about all her auditions, especially if filming hasn’t yet happened, as some producers are cautious about not letting information leak out. In February she auditioned to appear in Ubisoft’s new Tom Clancy video game version of Rainbow Six Siege. Ubisoft ideally wanted a South African for the character Melusi, and they thought Vongai might be the closest thing. “The non-disclosure agreement was very tight.” In the end, a South African-Zimbabwean friend of hers, Sibongile Mlambo, got the role. “Yes,” she admits, “there have been so many ‘almosts’!” Still, these auditions are welcome, and an encouraging sign.

This year, though, America’s film- and TV-production routine juddered to a halt. The industry’s ‘Pilot’ season runs January to April, when the broadcast networks purchase, cast, and shoot pilots. ‘Upfront’ season follows immediately in May, when the stations punt their pilots to news-media and advertisers. It’s a crucial time for actors, as they audition, clinch roles – and get paid. All of this, of course, was iced in March 2020. TV filming and commissions have slowly restarted recently, but until major movie complexes in LA and the main boroughs of New York can reopen, the cashflow collapse will draw out the slowdown in film commissions. And Broadway and all New York theatres, having closed on 12 March, will remain shut until at least June next year.

As New York’s bitter winter sets in, the city is undergoing a seriously concerning second wave of Covid-19. Vongai is mindful to adhere closely to the health guidelines. Earlier this year she created a short video titledQuarantine Is as an entry into the NY Theatre Salon’s Global Forms Theatre Festival. It’s just four minutes long, but I found it affecting on a number of levels: a performer unleashing a pent-up frustration at not being able to perform; an immigrant caught in Kafkaesque bureaucracy; a young Black woman heeding the shocking murder of another young Black woman, Breonna Taylor; and Black people still trying to prevail in a centuries-long push for genuine equality. Quarantine Is is powerful, and leads to us talking about the possibilities of slam poetry events. “A few times I’ve thought about going to the [landmark] Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village. I would tell myself I would go, but I’ve always just been….scared,” she says, laughing at herself.

Returning to creating Quarantine Is, she says: “The [Black Lives Matter] protest had just started, and it brought so much out of me.” Vongai participated in the Broadway Advocacy Coalition’s ‘Broadway for BLM’ virtual events. “At acting school we don’t even learn about Black playwrights. [Acting] school prepares the Brad Pitts and Leonardo DiCaprios of the world to succeed, but it’s not really fair to women nor people of colour. Having frank conversations about these issues in the industry has been great – although also annoying to hear white people in the industry say things like ‘Gee, I had no idea’.”

Vongai notes that Black actors may feel that they have an optimal shot at roles being auditioned by a Black casting director. But, during an all-Black online meeting, many fellow actors bemoaned that there are none. “That infuriated me, because there are. I messaged all the ones I knew, to request permission to use their images and create a post. It spread, so I was able to help my colleagues.”

She admits she loves this sort of activism. “Yes! Definitely. My longer-term aspiration is to be a goodwill ambassador like Angelina Jolie, a UN special envoy. I believe in giving back.”

The conversation circles back to dreams. Vongai yearns for roles in films by her list of dream directors and film-makers: Ava Marie DuVernay, the first Black woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival (Middle of Nowhere); Barry Jenkins, 2017 Oscar winner for Adapted Script (Moonlight); Emmy-nominated screenwriter Alan Yang (Tigertail). “The stories they tell are about issues that matter. They remind me that when I approach a script, it’s not just about me. These stories have an impact on society and audiences. So I have to elevate my acting, because I have to help other people’s voices to be heard. I can’t eff it up.”

Vongai’s journey and her current stasis is emblematic of the thousands of unheralded people in artistic fields who have seen the global pandemic dampen their horizons and force a reset to their goals. “As a society we only see actors as the people who are winning awards – that’s great, and I aspire to that. But I’m worried about the yet-to-make it folk networking in chat-room forums, auditioning, doing low-paid work in the meantime to survive.” Like Vongai, they don’t want to give up hope of a dream role – or, at the moment, any role.

As she’s saying goodbye to her 20s relatively soon, I ask her what her future holds. Isolation has had one upside: the time to do many other things. She’s writing, planning a podcast, formulating a business plan for a production company which she wants to register and set up in 2021. “This year has taught us that life is so uncertain. I don’t want to put things off anymore. So I want to adapt stories, to help other artists make their dreams come true, too. I want to produce stuff, even with minimal money.”

During the conversation, Vongai mentions a casting agency, fleetingly, yet with a fragmentary, emotive pause: Telsey and Company. I find them easily in a search, but their website does something strange: it opens on a Racial Justice Statement.

The statement’s words – and its prioritisation in replacing the home-page – are moving, for reasons I can’t fully explain. Perhaps they emanate from a realisation that, even in surreal, annus horribilis 2020, uplifting transformations are happening, and dreams that will not die are being made stronger.

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