Life & Style

Chipo Chung: Zimbabwe’s international actress of repute

BORN to war veteran parents Rugare Gumbo and Fay Chung, Chipo Chung’s birth was remarkable in many ways. It was during the Zimbabwe war of liberation and her mother, former Education minister, Fay Chung gave birth at a refugee camp in Tanzania where she had sought refugee from the Ian Smith regime.

There was no pomp and fun fare at young Chipo Chung’s birth.

It was a cold, tense atmosphere with a thick blanket of despair hovering above that refugee camp.

And the young child was a rare species, especially among a largely black population, being a mixture of Chinese and black blood.

But as the name, Chipo, meaning gift, suggests, she did not arrive empty-handed. The comrades were quickly to relish from her rich creative talent for the two years she stayed at refugee camps in Tanzania and Mozambique, as a toddler, before coming to independent Zimbabwe in 1980.

“My mother says I would entertain comrades through singing and dancing as a toddler. That is when my love for performing started,” recalls Chung without revealing her date of birth.

This is the foundation story of Chung, whose talent has now blossomed, moulding the lady into an international actress of repute.

Chung’s zeal for arts was apparent at school where she thrilled in debate and drama. Despite scooping a string of A grades at O’ Level and A’ Level, she went on to pursue theatre and drama at university.

“I attained 11 A’s at O’ Level and three A’s at A Level. I got a D the first time in A Level Maths, but I wrote it again and passed. I don’t believe in failure. Failure is just an opportunity to get back up and try again,” says the former Blakiston and Dominican Convent student.

She was head of the debate club and in her final year she was head girl, a testament to Chung’s firm leadership skills.

The United Kingdom-based actress-cum director speaks glowingly of her past schools: “I was blessed to be surrounded by extremely-talented peers, and my high school encouraged my leadership and creativity.”

At 15, Chung found company in her matches, Hollywood Zimbabwe-born actress Danai Gurira and the late mbira songstress Chiwoniso Maraire as pioneer students at Chipawo where she directed a number of plays.

Unrelenting in her quest to become an accomplished performer, Chung went to the US in the late 1990’s, pursuing a theatre degree at Yale University.

Chung’s mother had moved to the US where she was working for the United Nations.

A former drama teacher at Dominican Covenant, where her charges she at one time won the school best play award at national highs school drama competitions, Chung also pursued drama with one of the best institutes in the world
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“I was very lucky to get into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art [Rada] in London, which is the best drama school in the world. I loved English as a student and always wanted to play Shakespeare. Rada is the school of old-time British greats like John Gielgud, Vivian Leigh and Kenneth Branagh, and I must admit that it is where I perfected my British accent. Getting into the acting business was challenging, especially as an outsider,” she said.

With a filmography of 17 acts, the actress’s collection includes political theatre, Talking to Terrorists, The Overwhelming and Fallujah where she played Condoleeza Rice, a US diplomat.

But it appears the actress’s crowning moment was to come in 2015 when she played the key role of Mary Magdalene in the epic multi-racial film, A.D The Bible Continues, which opened to more than 11 million viewers in April.

The film, which was an instant hit, explores the “exciting and inspiring events that followed the crucifixion of Christ,” according to the US commercial broadcaster NB.

Although Chung is currently based in the UK, she travels often, from Iceland to shoot the Sky Atlantic series Fortitude, and to Morocco to play Mary Magdalene in the NBC series AD The Bible Continues, which recently aired on DStv.

Chung, however, mourns that Zimbabwe is lagging behind in supporting the arts, saying the country has a lot to learn from South Africa to turn the sector into a viable employer for talented young people.

About her challenges and mixed race status, she says: “Being black is difficult as directors have to be open-minded to cast you in a part that would obviously be played by a Caucasian person, so I broke my teeth playing African parts. My first major role was in Talking to Terrorists at the Royal Court Theatre in 2005, working with world-renowned director Max Stafford Clark. I played a Ugandan child soldier.”

Chung is also a champion of charity work, embarking on social change projects through theatre, to uplift sexual reproductive rights of women in Kenya.

In Zimbabwe, she works with Envision Zimbabwe Women’s Trust, which opens spaces for dialogue and supports grassroots women in Mbare .

She was also involved in the campaign to save the historic African Centre in London, which was a popular platform for African issues. — The Standard, 2015

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