Orange Is the New Black’s Phumzile Sitole on the new season and the importance of education

‘Education is a tool that can be used to escape a vicious cycle.’

phumzile-sitole-interview

South African stars have been making waves overseas, and one you really need to watch out for is Phumzile Sitole. Over the last few years, she has starred in acclaimed series such as Orange Is the New Black and The Good Fight. 

We chatted to her about her roles, what she misses about South Africa and what advice she has for aspiring actors.

In Orange Is The New Black, Phumzile plays Antoinetta ‘Akers’ Kerson. Akers is an inmate at Litchfield Penitentiary Maximum Security prison and is known for being a strong follower of Madison Murphy (Amanda Fuller).

Your character is pretty tough. Did you find it difficult to tap into that side of yourself?

I wouldn’t say it was difficult – like Akers, I have also been let down. For her, it’s life’s circumstances, it’s a society that is still figuring itself out, and it’s a less-than-perfect ‘justice’ system that has let her down consistently. I think it’s so common to associate ‘tough’ with mean/dark-spirited, but truly, Akers has just found a second skin and face to put on in order to survive – like many black women we know.

 

Season 7 has Akers enrolling in a GED (general educational development) class, which is an equivalent to a matric in South Africa. How important do you think education is for young women?

Without basic education (reading, writing, a matric certificate/GED), society will keep you disempowered and you won’t be able to forge new paths. Education is a tool – and sometimes a weapon – that can be used to escape a vicious cycle that many incarcerated people find themselves in.

There is a lot of talk about criminal justice reform in South Africa and the US. How important do you think it is to improve the lives of female prisoners?

It’s so important to not [condemn] all people who have been convicted, especially when they are trying to re-enter our communities after serving time. Everything is against their progression already, and a lot of the time (not all the time) the reasons they were arrested aren’t as just as we would like to believe.  It’s vital that the system looks at itself in the mirror and stops capitalising on black and brown bodies for their own financial gain.

Is there any character that you wish your character got to spend more time with on-screen?

Yes – Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett (in season 6). But luckily a lot of my time on set in Season 7 was spent with her. Taryn Manning is an incredible actor who I respect and learnt a lot from in both seasons. 

What is it like working with industry greats like Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald in The Good Fight?

Truly lovely. Both Christine and Audra carry themselves with grace and kindness, professionalism and precision. They are veterans.

Who are your role models?

I have many. But this year, in particular, it’s my brother Sibusiso Sitole. He leads an incredible agency called The Odd Number, and has taught me how my quirks, my shortcomings, my individuality and my ‘oddness’ will set me apart and keep me rooted in who I was raised to be. 

You are making amazing strides internationally. What motivates you?

Thank you so much 🙂 As clichéd as it may sound, my family motivates me above and beyond anything else. 

What do you miss most about South Africa?

Everything. Our music, our food, the Sitole family, my mom’s oxtail, pap, kotas, my best friends, our theatre, our stories, my mom (with or without the oxtail)… The list is endless.

What advice do you have for young South African women who aspire to be actors?

To be sure it’s what you really, really want to do. It’s tough. But the payoff – the ‘play’ – is worth it.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m in the Off-Broadway, all-female, all-black play Measure For Measure at The Public Theater in New York, which is a dream come true for me. I was also just in Canada shooting a juicy role that I can’t wait to share. February 2020 is when it comes out in the US. But for now ? , unfortunately. 

Orange Is The New Black Season 7 airs on Wednesday evenings at 10pm on M-Net (DStv channel 101).

* Content may have been edited for clarity.

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Image credit: Rigel Maxfield Photography