Vongai Shava, a Zimbabwean actress based in New York, says she had to study her craft and learn the history behind performance to ensure that she ultimately yields a lengthy competitive career.
By Grant Moyo
The gifted actress is of the notion that it takes more than natural talent to survive and thrive in the creative industry she described the film industry in the United States as a competitive and congested place, which demands actresses and actors to stand out through their unique techniques.
Having won the award for Best Lead Drama Actress for Patiri — In The Promised Land at Catalyst Content Festival and being fortunate to be auditioning for series regular as well as guest star roles in her early career, Shava also credits the necessity of learning business skills to networking and marketing herself well in the industry.
Shava was born in Harare and raised in London (United Kingdom) and Beijing (China). She holds an Honours Degree in Film and Television Studies from Brunel University in London. The international actress was classically trained in acting, voice and movement techniques at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Besides working in theatre, film and television, she does commercials as well as voice-over work.
“I had a very privileged international upbringing and grew up exposed to many different cultures that have influenced my perspective on life and what it means to be human,” Shava told Standard Style.
“Despite that, I always felt in-between cultures, never Zimbabwean or black enough and not exactly British or Chinese. I was either bullied for being different, not being able to fit into a metaphorical box or accused of being ‘snobbish’.
“It was during my time at Harrow International School in Beijing that I finally felt accepted and discovered my love for performance.
“One of my initial introductions to acting was when the girls’ choir of which I was a member staged a musical medley of Les Miserables. I performed a reprise of On My Own.
“However, it was when I was asked by the newly-hired drama teacher to act in a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello that I discovered my potential as an actress.”
With a professional career only four years now, starring as the lead character in Patiri — In The Promised Land was Shava’s first lead role in a film. The film’s success on the festival circuit in America and Europe, including the Cannes Court Metrage, afforded her with opportunities to meet incredible writers and executive producers from networks such as Netflix and HBO, helping her audition for other projects.
“I have starred in numerous plays like Black Sparta, The Refugee Plays, a reading of Toasting Scotty at The Actors Studio opposite SAG award winner Paul Guilfoyle of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation fame, and a reading of When My Mama Was a Hittite at the prominent New York Theatre Workshop [NYTW] alongside Turkish writer, actress, and musician Melis Aker and German actress Nicole Ansari-Cox,” she said.
“One of my most memorable jobs was acting in the film Fragile directed by Kaye Tuckerman starring Ariana DeBose [Hamilton, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Spielberg’s West Side Story]. The film is about police brutality and racial profiling and is sadly as relevant as ever.
“Playing ‘Ebele’ in Black Sparta was physically challenging because it involved stage combat and practising with a bow and arrow. It was emotionally challenging and draining because it meant unearthing the history and pain associated with colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It was definitely out of my spiritual comfort zone to learn that the Kingdom of Dahomey was the birthplace of voodoo religion and the Dahomey warriors partook in blood sacrifices. However, it was rewarding to tell a story about fearless women warriors and perform for a black audience at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina.”
Her most recent film job was recording dialogue for the NBC Universal film The Photograph directed by Stella Meghie, which features renowned American film stars Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield.
Shava regards the experience as “incredible” because Stella Meghie is an upcoming Canadian director and screenwriter whose work she admires. The actress also had the opportunity to see as well as select clips from the film months before it premiered in movie theaters.
Shava acknowledged that she particularly chose to study film and television because she was interested in learning the aspects of screenwriting, directing, acting and post-production all meshed together into a final product.
Upon completing her degree, she discovered she was more determined than ever to be an actress. With all of the different acting mediums she has been exposed to, Shava stressed the importance of script analysis, memorising, breath work, and paying attention.
“Acting is reacting and you only accomplish that by truly being in the moment. It is never about me, but only how I can help serve the story. Just as my degree in Film and Television gave me the foundation for film making, it was necessary to learn the acting techniques,” she said.
“These forms of techniques can be used when creating a character and can inform one’s performance. For instance, I will probably sound and carry myself differently if I was auditioning to be a lawyer as opposed to the role of a yoga instructor or a Marvel superhero.
“Voice or vocal technique can involve breath work, speech articulation, storytelling through song and sometimes dialect work. Breath work and articulation helps an actress or actor to be heard and understood clearly, which is an important skill to have especially for voice-over work.
Shava has been fortunate to enter the film and television industry at a time when there is an increase in roles for women and people of colour as well as the rise in streaming platforms.
However, she has had her share of challenges as a black woman in the white as well as male-dominated industry, and also as a foreigner in the US.
The actress has endured incidents of sexual harassment and racial micro-aggression.
“There have been male directors or co-stars who crossed boundaries and there have been American peers who claimed I had an advantage because of my British accent and because ‘diversity is a trend’,” she said.
“Even with the so-called advantages, it was not easy for me to secure a talent agent, which meant I often did not have access to some of the auditions I wanted.
“In the past I felt judged for my natural hair, so I wore my hair straight for auditions thinking it was probably more appropriate because it was still new to see natural hair on-screen.
“To make matters worse, most hairstylists I had encountered at the time did not understand how to work with black hair textures let alone natural hair.”
With Shava passionate about telling stories that celebrate underrepresented communities and encourage people to have the difficult conversations that help the world move forward to a society which benefits everyone, hopefully she will exceptionally tell local community stories and give them a prolonged global platform.