Volume 16 • Issue 31 | December 30 - January 8, 2004

THEATER


Actress examines parents’ influence on her life

By John Arbucci

Linda Sithole, who was born in South Africa, stars in “Linda Means to Wait,” the one-woman play she wrote following the deaths of her parents.

Once a week, Linda Sithole stands in front of a roomful of strangers and tells her life story, including the deaths of her mother and father.

Every Saturday night, Sithole (pronounced sih-TOLL-le) a 38-year-old actress born in South Africa, performs her one-woman play, “Linda Means to Wait,” at the Shooting Star Theatre in the South Street Seaport. The play, she says, is about how people can overcome poverty, racism, and loss. It is also about being a Zulu and how, for her, her family metamorphosed from a source of embarrassment into a source of strength.

Sithole’s family came from Umlazi, South Africa. Her grandmother raised six children, including Sithole’s father, on a farm that had one water pump, an outhouse and a large thatched-roof house. As Sithole explains it, her grandmother saw education as her children’s way to a better life.

“Her mission was to make sure that they understood that education wasn’t optional for them,” Sithole said, explaining that five of her grandmother’s six children – including Sithole’s father – went to college on scholarships in the United States. “It was a must-do kind of thing for them.”

Education was also, in turn, a must-do kind of thing for Sithole and her sisters. She got her undergraduate degree in drama from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a masters degree in fine arts from Yale University.

After graduation she came to New York City, where she took various jobs while looking for work in theatre. Like most actors, she found herself splitting her time between doing what she loved – acting – and holding down survival jobs in order to make money to live.

One of those jobs was program director with the Education & Industry Partnership, Inc., which taught basic life skills and career preparation to inner city children. Those skills include how to ask questions, resolve conflicts and be a person of integrity.

“Often you have parents who aren’t aware that that training is needed,” Sithole said. Her program tried to address the problems that arise when children live in communities where they don’t have many responsible, working adults as role models.

And if there’s something that Sithole understands, it’s the importance of a role model. Her parents, especially her father, set an example that she sometimes feels hard-pressed to live up to.

Sithole did not understand how much of a role model her father was until he died in a commuter plane crash in 1994. The airline offered her family a settlement based on her father’s income as a professor of ethnomusicology. Her father’s friend, an attorney, represented the family in negotiations with the airline.

“He built a case,” she said, “that what you give people is where your value lies, how much of a servant to society you are.”

The attorney went to South Africa, Sithole said, “and looked at how people’s lives were impacted by the assistance my father gave them.”

Her father had maintained deep ties with his community in South Africa. He had sent money back for almost 30 years, and helped his mother take care of the many people who lived on her farm.

In the end, the settlement from the airline was four to five times what they had originally proposed.

The money however, could in no way make up for Sithole’s loss of her father, especially after her mother’s death two years earlier. Both her parents were dead, and she was not yet 30 years old.

She decided to try to write a play about her parents.

“Originally, I was trying to find a way to deal with the loss of my parents,” Sithole said. The early drafts of her play, she said, were dark and about death.

Then she saw some of John Leguizamo’s work.

“It made me think that I could deal with heavy things in a humorous way.”

That humor includes what it was like to be a teenager and have your friends discover that your family, as part of its traditions, sacrifices goats in the basement. The reasons might be a little different, but Sithole’s sentiments at the time were the same as every American teen born of immigrant parents.

“I wished my family was more like everyone else’s,” she said.

As an adult, however, she has come to celebrate and embrace those differences.

“It’s what I draw from in order to go forward,” Sithole said.

Part of going forward, however, involves doing things her parents would never have approved.

“I’ve become a lot more courageous than I used to be,” she said. Her parents lived cautious, measured lives, yet they still died young. It made her realize, she said, that you can’t do anything to keep you from dying.

As a result, she started to do things that once would have been unthinkable. She took up sky-diving, and plans on going deep-sea diving.

Something else she wouldn’t have done if her parents were still alive, Sithole said, was get engaged to be married. Her parents emphasized that she – and any prospective husband – should have secure jobs with large corporations.

Her fiancé, Seth, is a DJ.

He is also white.

“I don’t think I would have felt free enough to let my relationship with Seth grow if they had still been alive,” she said. “They weren’t racist people, but they did believe in people sticking with their own.”

The basis for that belief, she said, was their tribal background in South Africa. “You have so many traditions that are specific to your group, the best possible union is with someone in your own group.”

It is in this way, as in so many other ways, that Linda Sithole’s story – and that of her family – is typical of so many other immigrant families in the United States. It is the story of ethnicity and assimilation. Of loss and new beginnings.

It is the story she tells once a week on a small, spare stage in downtown Manhattan. It is also the story that she lives every day.


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