An Emmy nominated South African actor takes us on a journey into the past, in her first leading role in an international series

Former Wits graduate, Thuso Mbedu (29) landed her first US role for a limited series, The Underground Railroad, directed and executive produced by Barry Jenkins and set to premiere on Amazon Prime on May 14 2021.

Mbedu, who was recently cast to star alongside Viola Davis in a feature film, The Woman King, landed the leading role of Cora Randall at her first audition for the series. She had been expecting rejection, but she recalls having an enjoyable audition with Jenkins. “I was able to feel safe and did not feel pressured,” recalls Mbedu.

The series, a historic drama, is an adaption of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. It is a looking glass into the largest network of secret routes and safe houses used by African American slaves to escape to Canada and other free states. Cora Randall (Mbedu), although not a literal person in history, is a representation of the many misplaced black bodies that escaped the shackles of slavery and fled to freedom using the Underground Railroad. The series is set to be a spell-binding 10-episode journey of hope and perseverance.

According to Vulture, “the Underground Railroad is a metaphor of the American fugitive slave network into a literal system of stations travelled by trains”, which takes Randall from a plantation in the southern American state of Georgia to freedom. The series tells the audience a metaphorical story of slavery’s 400-year history.

Mbedu strongly suggests one should read the novel first, but once it is read the reader should not be stirred by the creative choices taken by Jenkins, which might not be accurate to the novel.

“I binge-watched the entire series, when I was told not to,’’ she laughs. She adds that the script was a page-turner, and the series captures that quality.

Jenkins, in an interview with Times Livesaid he believed he saw Cora in Mbedu. Mbedu could not comment on Jenkins’s sentiments but disclosed that he said the same thing to her. She tells Wits Vuvuzela that she and Randall exhibit quiet strength and draw on similarities they both experienced; a deep sense of loss since being orphaned at a young age.

Mbedu says the series depicts black bodies honestly over history: “We are Africans in America, something new to the history of the world.” This is narrated in the teaser trailer posted on media platforms earlier in March 2021. Mbedu shares her opinion, saying African Americans were conquered and divided through the atrocities of slavery and left without a connection to Africa and their kinfolk. “[We] are giving a voice to people with hopes of garnering sympathy and empathy,” she says.

The actor laments on her university career and love for the craft of acting, which she began developing a love for when she was in grade 10 or 11. She then cultivated her love by perusing a dramatic arts degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Wits).

Current student Nikho Bomela (22), studying for a bachelor of arts honours majoring in musical theatre and performance practice, tells Wits Vuvuzela, “nothing is about how talented you are, but how hard-working you are and driven as an artist.”

 “I don’t think I’ll come to a place where I’d say I’ve made it. You are only as good as your last performance.”

Hollywood, the land of tinseled cinematic dreams, is the ‘‘dream’’ and end goal for many actors, although not always attainable for those in the South African industry. Mbedu, one can say, has defeated the odds. She is described as goal-driven and dedicated. Her former Scandal acting coach and head of department for theatre and performance at Wits, Fiona Ramsay, said Thuso ‘‘seemed very clear about her dreams, goals and aims – but in tandem with this she demonstrated a clear plan on how to make those dreams a reality”.

Now that she has made it to Hollywood, the actor says, “I don’t think I’ll come to a place where I’d say I’ve made it. You are only as good as your last performance.”

With Thuso Mbedu, hard work clearly beats talent. She studied for a bachelor of arts degree majoring in physical theatre and performing arts management, and graduated with honours.

Mbedu recalls having a good relationship with her lecturers and that the nature of the degree forced her to foster a relationship of trust with them, because it was the only way one could get better. “I challenged lecturers; I am never afraid to ask stupid questions,” she says.

Ramsay, although she had never taught Mbedu, said her dedication for ‘‘digging deeper’’ and getting it right set her apart.

When asked about the opportunities the department offers students beyond the classroom, Bomela noted that from her perspective there is little the department notifies them about, and students often find themselves looking for openings. Ramsay said, however, “The department would not advise or encourage students to take part-time work or small roles in productions if these were to disrupt focus on academics. Cases are assessed individually and that is the student’s choice.”

Mbedu and recent graduates Buntu Petso and Malibongwe Mdwaba are among many former students of the Wits department who have excelled on-screen, locally and internationally.

FEATURED IMAGE: South African actress and Wits alumnus Thuso Mbedu. Photo: Noa Grayevsky