Blood Psalms starts with us waiting for the guest of honour to arrive.
In the first episode, we see the intrigue behind the birth of Princess Zazi (Bokang Phelane) that makes her the daughter of either the present Akachi King, Letsha (Mothusi Magano) or the father he murdered, The Ancient Monarch (Sello Motloung).
We see Princess Zazi’s birth foreshadowed by a prophecy. Her mother, Ndiya Zazi (Hlubi Mboya) of The Chini tribe is told that she will be martyred, and that her death will set off an age of darkness and evil. Ndiya is also told that her daughter Princess Zazi will reclaim the throne, restoring order and peace. On Zazi’s 18th birthday, King Letsha is told that she will be pregnant, and the god Heka will return with the birth of that child, ending Letsha’s bloodline and his world.
And in episode two we meet Zazi herself last: A princess of the Akachi palace, surrounded by wealth, ritual and secrecy, but also a young woman on the brink of adulthood who’s deathly afraid of the court finding out that she’s lost her virginity and that her pregnancy is starting to show. It’s a passive beginning of sitting in windows and sighing, for someone who’s about to discover that she has mystical powers and a magnificent destiny…
We spoke to Bokang about becoming Princess Zazi, She Who Knows Herself.
Becoming the Princess
Zazi’s name means She Who Knows Herself. How did you get to know her?
In terms of physical things, I would say it would be in the wardrobe department when I actually got to wear her gown, and particularly when I got to wear her glorious corset. When I got into that corset and I felt the coldness of the beads, it hugged me and elongated my body and demanded this regality of me. I was like, “This is she; this is her.” It's like the burden of royalty, what that corset really represents.
How would you compare Zazi to a modern 18-year-old woman?
This is a story for all Africans, but my particular very personal experience comes from Southern Africa, from Lesotho. And then I've been here (in South Africa) since I was 18 years old. Every generation has a struggle. I always feel like the previous generation, their issues were very clear. There was racial inequality to be addressed, and then after that, it was: address other forms of political, social, and economic inequalities. But I feel like with the current South African youth, the antagonist is not so clear. And it’s similar with Princess Zazi. Her thing to defeat is self-identity, and then to transcend the prophecy of doom.
Can you imagine living the isolated life that she does?
What felt really unfamiliar was that she is passive for a long time. She's just a princess, she's hoisted out for a bit, she's told what to eat, she's told what to drink. I would die under such circumstances! But it’s by design. Between the King and Assili (The Uchawi Queen and sorceress who’s Letsha’s chief advisor, played by Faith Baloyi), there's a very specific purpose to isolating her. Over time she has learned that she can't trust anybody. Everybody works for the monarchy. Everybody works for the king. Everybody works for Assili. There's no safe space for her. As the daughter of the king, she should have the throne someday. But she's also well aware of the other energies around her that do not wish for that. She really knows nothing about her life, except that her presence means death. Just imagine: No affection from your loved ones, but a sense that you are honoured at a cold distance. And that you are the danger that’s coming to kill us.
How did you prepare to play Zazi?
When our training started with Blood Psalms, the show was going to have a lot more action. So, I got to learn some Muay Thai, I got to learn some Krav Maga. And Jahmil showed me a picture of Red Sonja (a warrior woman from the 1985 film of the same name). And it was let’s get you traps, let’s get you biceps and abs, just warrior-ready. They got me a personal trainer, they budgeted for diet. I really enjoyed getting into warrior mode. But we shot in the pandemic and there were proximity regulations that we had to adhere to. And then as a collective, we had a night with a shaman, discussing our spiritual connection to the journey that we're about to take with Blood Psalms, as Africans fortifying a new identity.
Your first day stepping into Zazi’s chambers, what did you want to look at first?
The statue of the goddess Isis! Oh, I'm getting goosebumps about it. When she opens the doors, staring straight at her are these big eyes of this goddess Isis, kneeling. It’s a symbol that even though you're a princess and you have all this power; everything asks you to come to your knees and bend and be humble.
Seeing episode 1, what really made you go, ‘wow’?
The battle scene was pretty epic. But what touched my heart really was to have Hlubi Mboya, to have Ndiya Zazi, as my mom. We texted each other and whenever we saw each other, we said hugs, love, kisses. So, to see her journey as Ndiya Zazi, to see her fight for her daughter, to see her love her daughter, it just made me feel like that connection was real.
What would 10-year-old Bokang have made of Blood Psalms?
My 10-year-old self was always caked in sheets and tablecloths to make a gown situation and paper box crown. So, she would be so happy, so proud.
Watch Blood Psalms Season 1 Wednesdays from 28 September from 05:00 on Showmax, with DStv
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Bloods Psalms’ co-executive producer, writer and director Jahmil X Qubeka digs into the origins and inspirations of the series.
Bokang Phelane invites us inside Princess Zazi’s private chambers on Blood Psalms.
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