The first time I met Toni, I was roped in to ‘push the buttons’ on a cheap CD player that balanced on a wonky stool. Toni was rehearsing a scene for a play (The Last Show) in her front room with Roberto Pombo, and it was my job to press play, according to certain cues. I missed said cues because I was completely mesmerised by her performance – even though it was ‘just a rehearsal’, it was clear to me that Toni was a hugely talented performer.
Up until that point, I had only a vague understanding of Toni’s acting prowess. I also thought that she was a he (‘Tony’ had only ever been spoken about), and that ‘he’ (I assumed) had won some or another acting award, called a ‘Naledi’.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and I now have a much better understanding of Toni Morkel: actor/landlord. I am also (slightly) less of a theatre philistine – I now know what a Naledi is, and that Toni is a performer, not an actor. I also know that she always wears a big, floppy hat and long sleeves, and that she likes to do operatic vocal warm-ups every morning in her kitchen.
She also talks very quickly, while jumping from topic to topic and gesticulating like an Italian on tik. Toni is one of the few people who elicits my ‘silent laugh’: an inaudible roar that only happens when I find something truly hysterical, and causes my whole body to violently and quietly spasm while I cry. We also share the same birthday, along with the schizophrenic Capricorn proclivity of wanting a predictable existence, yet also needing to lead a totally unconventional life.
Growing up in the Cape, Toni studied Fine Art at Durban Technikon and earned her performer stripes working with The Handspring Puppet Company. For over three decades, she has served as an important contributor to South African theatre, and has worked with Robyn Orlin and Sylvaine Strike, amongst others.
Toni’s introduction to the big, bad city of Johannesburg began in 1993, when she moved here from Durban after the Natal Performing Arts Council restructured. Although the council was based in Durban, most of the actors were from Joburg – and she had a tough choice to take ‘voluntary retrenchment’.
“At the time I was doing TM [Transcendental Meditation] and I did an advanced course in the Drakensburg – it was all about the art of being, allowing and knowing the universe will take care of decisions and guide you. I was a mess, but when the choice of voluntary retrenchment came up, people said I should come to Joburg,” she explains.
Toni was terrified to move to Johannesburg – she had always viewed the city as an intimidating, scary sprawl of strangers. But, somehow she “just knew” that this was where she had to be.
“Joburg is such a big city and I didn’t know anybody, but a couple of my actor friends said I could stay with them and not to worry. I did it, and came up here.”
Thanks to said friends, Toni got introduced to the Market Theatre Lab and the hugely popular improvisation company Theatre Sports. For the next year she found her feet, staying with friends in Putney Road, Brixton. She also met Bié Venter. At the time, Toni knew Bié’s brother, Francois Venter.
Bié was instrumental in introducing Toni to Bez Valley and surrounds: not only did Bié live with her brother in 3rd Avenue, but she also knew three brothers (unrelated to her) who lived in nearby Bertrams. The Taylor brothers (Garfield, Duncan and James – who is since deceased) own an amazing, old property on Gordon Road. At the time, they also happened to be looking for someone to stay in their house. Bié and Toni moved in a year later.
“The Taylor brothers used to make stuff for the film industry; they did all the dead bodies for Shaka Zulu – in our cellar were all these life-size casts of body parts,” says Toni. “There was also a life-size crocodile in the garden … we felt like we lived in a fairy-tale place.”
“Living in Bertrams at that time (from 1994) was very edgy, it was the beginning of the decay of the city, but an amazing place,” she adds. “I knew I was in the heart of Joburg, not living in a flat in Killarney.”
Toni and Bié lived in Gordon Road for nine happy years. In the 10th year, however, they broke up – with Toni staying on in the house.
“That 10th year was my deep, dark, black year of darkness. I used to walk my dog Jack around Bertrams in the middle of winter, and question my life. I would walk past this big ‘spook’ [ghost] house in 1st Avenue [in Bez Valley] … I ended up living in that road and discovered Tino*.”
Tino De Carvalhos is a long-time Bez Valley local; a mysterious, white-bearded and lone vigilante who stands on a corner of 1st Avenue in the mornings and evenings, without fail. He is a self-appointed guard of sorts, who keeps watch over the street. He also owns an abandoned house a few streets up – in 1995 his elderly parents were murdered while asleep in the house. Tino has kept the house as is, ever since.
“There also used to be a magazine called Darling,” adds Toni, typically ADD-ing to the next thought. “On the back page there was a comic with a character called Blossom, who lived in Bez Valley. I loved reading Blossom.”
In 2006 Toni bought her semis in The Valley: the one half that I stay in, and the other half inhabited by a Congolese family – who often have explosive rows in French. Toni now lives in Norwood with her partner, Ruth, but she admits that she really misses her Bez house.
“I pine for my pressed ceilings, I pine for my wooden floors. I loved my kitchen, I loved my set-up, I loved my gas stove … I even loved my front security gate with my padlock; I just really loved my house.”
“But I don’t hate suburbia, I really like it. I like that our neighbours in Norwood don’t fight. There’s lots of ‘children’s noise’, but there’s no gunshots and very little fire-crackers. There’s not that anxiety of domestic fighting that I used to hear in Bez Valley.”
“And I’m privileged: I live in a cul-de-sac with a boom and a guard, and my girlfriend has a remote-control garage […]. In the middle of the night I don’t have to check left and right and drive round the block once before I come in. And I’m loving the fact that in the evenings I can go for an hour-long walk in my neighbourhood on the lovely, wide streets of Lower Houghton, that don’t have trash.”
I can relate to her on some level, as I have a love-hate relationship with Bez Valley. Sometimes I long for the tranquility of the suburbs: I miss having a nice garden, I miss peace and quiet, and I miss not having to deal with the endless mounds of rubble and rotting furniture that get dumped on the pavements. There are also times when I am angered by how many strays are left to roam the ‘hood, as well as how nothing is done about the constant rat infestations.
And I miss her Aida-style singing in the mornings.
Toni admits that she felt “more connected” to Joburg in Bez Valley, though. And I completely understand why – once you’re in the ‘burbs proper, you lose the sense of community and aliveness that characterise areas like Bez Valley.
However, Toni doesn’t see herself living in Joburg forever – in the next decade, she has a simple dream: to live with Ruth near the ocean.
She wants to stay in a little cottage in Fish Hoek, where she and Ruth can hang out with the other “grannies”.
“I want to walk our dogs on the beach, with all the other dykes.”
*Update: Tino was murdered in his house in 2016. I now live in suburbia.