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Interview: Ain’t To Proud To Ask The Questions

Sifiso Mazibuko chats about playing Otis Williams in Ain’t Too Proud

Ain’t Too Proud at the Prince Edward Theatre is a musical covering the career of The Temptations, one of Motown’s longest running soul bands. Having risen to global fame during the turbulent 1960s they established a highly distinguished career, and today this dynamic band from Detroit is recognised in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Playing Otis Williams, the founder member of the band, is Sifiso Mazibuko and we just couldn’t resist the Temptation when we were offered a chance to chat about his experience in the show.

Hi Sifiso. This sounds like an amazing production for the music alone. The Temptations have had 42 Top Ten hits including 14 number ones, and some of those tracks are familiar to everyone; ‘My Girl’, ‘Just My Imagination’, ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ – just fabulous hits. To start with, can you tell us if you have a favourite song in the show?

My favourite song in the show is Just My Imagination.

You play Otis who is at the core of this iconic Motown band. Can you tell us a bit about his story?

The story of Otis is quite remarkable. He was born on the border of Texas and Arkansas in a city called Texarkana, and around the age of 10 he moved to Detroit to live with his mum. He’d fallen in love with music from a young age, he was just fascinated by it, and his passion for music drove him to build the band The Temptations. First, he started out as ‘Otis Williams and The Distants’ and then built The Temptations along with Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin, who became the group we all know and love.

What was it about Ain’t Too Proud that made it a significant track?

Ain’t Too Proud has a punchy groove to it, it’s a proper wail of a song in terms of David Ruffin’s vocals. When I was reading Otis Williams’ autobiography, he said that Norman Whitfield, who wrote the song, had written it quite high up in David’s register, so when they were recording it in the studio it was evident that David’s veins seemed like they were popping through his throat – that’s how much Ruffin was, not straining, but working so hard to sing the song with the kind of punch and cry that was envisioned. You feel it when you listen to that song!

The Temptations’ shows are hugely entertaining and joyful – full of energy. Do you find it difficult to capture their signature moves and sound? What’s the hardest part of the performance?

The hardest part of the performance is the dance – the dancing is amazing. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is incredible, just breathtaking. Every song is choreographed to be as if the audience is experiencing it in concert, and to feel that way as a performer, to be able to execute that level of choreography – the precision, the smoothness of it, every tone and texture of each movement – it all tells the story of these guys and what they were trying to do during a very turbulent time in America. The dance tells quite a lot of the angst, the funk, the groove and soul, it has it all intertwined within it, and it’s a beautiful part of the journey of The Temptations.

You’ve had a shining career in musical theatre, with your roots in South Africa but then performing right around the globe. You’ve even been in Hamilton! With all that experience to offer perspective, do you feel like the story in Ain’t Too Proud is important for giving visibility to a positive evolution in Black music, and for inspiring young creatives?

Yes absolutely, I do. The story is about five black men, but within those five black men there’s a larger ecosystem of so many other black artists who made incredible music and shaped music through Motown. Motown shaped American music and therefore global music – the sounds of RnB, and the sound of rock and roll, was shaped by a little two storey factory of a recording studio.

I think all of my experiences have really helped me to enjoy the legacy and the honour that it is to be able to tell the story of a particular group of people who worked very hard at something they believed in, who had massive dreams, who broke through barriers and really traversed different spaces in their lifetimes. If we look back 60 – 70 years ago to now, there is so much more that is able to be done in this day and age than what could have been done back then, so it’s very inspiring. It’s inspiring to me, so I hope it’s inspiring to others who are creative, other people of colour, young folk who are excited about going after their dreams, because that’s the story we get to tell every day – five young men who had dreams and chased them to become who they are.

Does it feel like a massive responsibility depicting the band, given the influence they’ve had on the music world? No pressure at all…

Yes, absolutely a massive responsibility. But I think part of the responsibility is coupled with the honour that it is to be in this position. I’m not forgetting that this is the West End premiere of this show. To be able to be part of the first group of people to be involved with this in the UK, almost overshadows what might feel like a daunting responsibility because there’s so much love and respect for the group and what they did. I grew up listening to The Temptations, so to be able to be involved in their story in this little way and pay homage to them is an incredible honour that does overshadow the sense of daunt that might follow.

What kind of audiences are coming to see the show? Are you bringing this phenomenal music to new ears?

All ages and all demographics are coming to the show and it’s very exciting to see! It’s really lovely.

Otis Williams is still touring as part of The Temptations with new band mates. Given the chance, would you like to perform with the man himself?

Absolutely, yes! I would love to perform with Otis Williams!

Many thanks to Sifiso for taking the time to fill us in on this show. Ain’t Too Proud runs at the Prince Edward Theatre until 7 January 2024. Further information and bookings can be found here.

About Mary Pollard

By her own admission Mary goes to the theatre far too much, and will watch just about anything. Her favourite musical is Matilda, which she has seen 16 times, but she’s also an Anthony Neilson and Shakespeare fan - go figure. She has a long history with Richmond Theatre, but is currently helping at Shakespeare's Globe as a steward and in the archive. She's also having fun being ET's specialist in children's theatre and puppetry, and being a Super Assessor for the Offies! Mary now insists on being called The Master having used the Covid pandemic to achieve an award winning MA in London's Theatre and Performance.