SARA Zwangobani is not a manufactured Canberra-girl-made-good – she’s the real thing and she’ll be here soon with the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s hit “In the Next Room, the Vibrator Play.”
Who doesn’t know that this play, directed by Pamela Rabe, portrays an 1880’s woman whose husband uses an electric apparatus to treat women suffering from hysteria?
Zwangobani gets to play Elizabeth, the wet-nurse to the central character Catherine, played by Jacqueline McKenzie.
In an era she describes as “the dawn of all sorts of things”, it is Elizabeth who gives Catherine a most helpful piece of advice about marital relations that is “all very relevant today.”
Born in Canberra, Zwangobani was raised in Cook and went to the local primary school, now a centre for Canberra theatre companies. She enjoyed “a great drama program” at Hawker College under theatre educationist and writer Frank McKone in what she regards as the college’s golden days.
She’s a huge fan of her home town and still has family here, including her futsal-playing brother Elliott Zwangobani, now an Australian Sports Commission director, declaring herself “envious” of friends who’ve been able to make their lives here permanently. Bondi just can’t match the ACT.
“It’s my first truly professional performance in Canberra,” she tells me, “it’s very exciting.”
Trained here as a hoofer at Betsy Sawyer’s School of Dance, she worked with Human Veins Dance Theatre, then left in the early ‘90s for the Victorian College of the Arts. On graduating, she was headhunted by John Howard (the actor, not the politician) to work in Sydney.
Later, in film and TV, she found steady roles in “All Saints” and “Home and Away” and “Love My Way” and parts in films such as “The Merchant of Fairness” and “Disgrace”.
But let’s face it. With a Zimbabwean dad and a Zulu surname, Zwangobani is unmistakeably a person of colour and that, in Australia’s conservative theatre scene, could well be limiting.
“I’m the STC’s go-to girl for coloured roles,” she tells me, “ninety per cent of my roles in the theatre are roles of colour.”
In the 2009, “A Streetcar Named Desire” she’s on the cast list as “a Negro woman” and now in “The Vibrator Play”, Zwangobani plays the more substantial African American wet nurse.
Oddly, TV turns out to be “more flexible”. On screen, she’s been playing lady cops, doctors and lawyers for ages.
Yet it’s probably worth the apparently retrograde step. For the past few years she’s been working with the Sydney Theatre Company and that led to the excitement of travelling with Cate Blanchett and the play’s director Liv Ullmann to New York with “Streetcar”.
And this play? Sydneyites, especially men, were rolling in the aisles with laughter but Melburnians took it more seriously. “I’m curious as to what Canberrans will think,” she says.
“In the Next Room, the Vibrator Play”, The Playhouse, June 8-11, Bookings to 6275 2700.