Shaleen Surtie-Richards was not just a legend. She was a stellar inspiration that broke racial boundaries when although originally cast in minor roles at the start of her career as the “jy moet net die meid speel” (you just have to play the maid) as in her own words, she starred in the stage production Fiela se Kind more than thirty years ago in the then Cape Performing Arts Board’s (CAPAB) production on the then Nico Malan theatre stage in 1986.
The planned season of this production was sold out – three weeks before the opening performance!!
The season had to be extended and eventually ran from 13 August until 4 October 1986 with more than 61 performances! Fleur Du Cup winner, Shaleen Surtie-Richards who played Fiela had contractual agreements with PACOFS and CAPAB and had to negotiate with them to free her for the extension. This was the first time that a production was sold out so quickly and early at the then Nico Malan Theatre. Theatre people were amazed at the interest in this production.
She is one of the catalysts that remains Artscape’s inspiration as we celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the building – she broke ground in the heydays of Apartheid as a celebrated actress, and as we entered democracy appearing on stage in productions such as Die Proponentjie, 1986; Aap in die Mou, 1988; District Six Buckingham Palace as well as Hennie Aucamp’s Blomtyd is Bloeityd in later years.
However, Shaleen is more than the descriptive term of an “icon”. The word does not describe this shining star South Africa and indeed the world was blessed with. Shaleen was so much more than a mere icon. She literally lit up the stages at Arstcape with her big, legendary presence, as one of the biggest names in the Arts. She is so much more than the accolades and the awards she had won over the years. She is more than a popular actress. She is one of the most beautiful souls I knew, and one that opened doors for other underprivileged artists to follow their hearts.
It is tragic that an actress of this stature who won a “gazillion and million awards” (in her own words) has died under the current circumstances. Just in 2019 she revealed how her life had turned out for the worst due to work drying up and unfortunately exacerbated by lockdown measures. It remains sad that she nearly lost her house, lost her medical aid, and had friends such as Doreen Morris and her nephew buying her food, essentials and chronic medication while also supported by the Theatre Benevolent Fund.
I hope that the legacy of her death will become an inspiration that we need to take care of our artists. Currently Artscape offers the theatre for free use if artists need to record or rehearse.
We, at Artscape will miss her talent and her big personality tremendously. Rest in peace, my friend!