…..BY BILLY SUTER……
VERSATILE East London-based actress and singer-bassist Kerry Hiles, sister of Durban actor Bryan Hiles, returns to Durban this weekend, after appearing at last weekend’s Hilton Arts Festival, to perform her acclaimed tribute to late singer Eva Cassidy at the Rhumbelow Theatre in Umbilo.
Hiles brings the Wela Kapela Productions’ Ovation Award-winning tribute show, The Story Of Eva Cassidy, to the Rhumbelow Theatre at 7pm on Friday, September 30 and 7pm on Saturday, October 1.
At the Rhumbelow, the Eva Cassidy production will appear as part of a double bill, Them Double Blues, which will have the Eva Cassidy tribute followed by one of South Africa’s finest blues artists, Eastern Cape singer-guitarist Rob Thompson. He will perform popular and self-penned songs alongside Hiles on bass and vocals, and Kristo Zondagh on drums and vocals.
Hiles was last in Durban and Hilton in 2019, with her successful tribute show, A Star Is Born – The Rise And Fall of Judy Garland, recipient of 2019 and 2020 Ovation Awards at the National Arts Festival.
Amanda Bothma of East London company Wela Kapela Productions sought a follow-up show for Hiles who, having had a collection of biographies about late singer Eva Cassidy, felt a show about her would be a complete opposite to the show focused on Garland, in terms of fame, fortune, style and even impact on the world.
Having the two complete opposites limited comparisons between the shows and allowed each production to shine on its own.
“I can only describe The Story of Eva Cassidy as a sleeper hit,” says Kerry. “What started as a production with an initial season of eight dates has morphed into a show that is now touring the country.”
She adds: “The response at this year’s National Arts Festival was really fantastic with some audience members claiming it to be the highlight of the festival for them. This is extremely encouraging and just a wonderful testimony to the way that Eva Cassidy reinvented the songs she chose to add to her repertoire.”
Eleven songs feature in the show headed for the Hilton Arts Festival, but for the Rhumbelow Theatre performance, there will be less narrative and more songs, she adds.
“The songs range from ballads to blues, folk, gospel and jazz. One of my favourites is Over the Rainbow because it comes at a point in the show where it is a real tear-jerker. I endeavour to make each note sound as pure as what Eva did – and this is tricky with a husky pop-style voice-box.
“Every time I sing that song, or Autumn Leaves, or I Know You By Heart, it is a challenge and I have to concentrate with everything I’ve got to pay homage to Cassidy. I enjoy the fact that each night is a challenge, that each show takes me out of my comfort zone.”
Another of Kerry’s favourites from the show is Wayfaring Stranger: “It is the complete opposite of the ballads: it’s raw, raunchy, loud, fast and really allows me to dig in on the bass and play a few funky rhythms with the drummer.”
The Eva Cassidy tribute show started at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town in October 2021 as a duo show (guitar, bass, drum loops) with a very cancer-heavy script, to tie in with Cancer Awareness month.
“The show, at that stage, featured a ladder as a pivotal member of the cast. I am pleased to say the ladder has become somewhat of a celebrity, appearing in further productions under the Wela Kapela umbrella – as a tree in Once On This Island (a Tony Award-winning musical) and Jackal and Wolf (a puppet show).
“The ladder no longer tours with the show, and the script has moved from a journey with cancer, to a 25th anniversary of the death of Eva edition, to simply a celebration of the music and the person of Eva Cassidy.
The show now includes a drummer (and occasionally a cameo role of violinist on one of the songs), and this lends a lot more excitement to some of the blues and gospel numbers, Kerry says.
“It has run at the Baxter Theatre, Kalk Bay Theatre, Studio 42 Theatre in Sedgefield and is due to return to the Western Cape for additional dates in October (at the Kalk Bay Theatre on October 12 and at the Drama Factory in Somerset West on October 13 and 16). Also, look out for a performance at Bedford Gardens on October 23.
Kerry has been rather busy of late. She played the Narrator in a production of Joseph at the Guild Theatre in East London last Christmas then appeared in Beat It – The Story of Michael Jackson, which proved so popular it had two runs and more repeats are now on the cards.
“Currently, besides The Story of Eva Cassidy, I am touring various Eastern Cape venues with a show called Angry Birds – a frivolous tribute to the ‘wilder women of music’. It’s such a fun show: three girls, three bottles of wine…what could possibly go wrong?“
Adds Kerry: “There are several show options in development for next year, but for the moment, I am enjoying the touring lifestyle with my trusty Ford Ranger bakkie, Harrison. You can follow his adventures at #harrisonhitstheroad across most social media platforms.”
The following is from my interview with Kerry when she was last in Durban in 2019:
BEFORE THE JUDY GARLAND TRIBUTE SHOW, WHEN LAST DID YOU PERFORM IN DURBAN?
I think it was way back, as Janet in The Rocky Horror Show at the Gateway Barnyard, in 2004 or thereabouts. You know, when I was 12. LOL.
I REMEMBER INTERVIEWING YOU WHEN YOU WERE AT THE OLD GATEWAY BARNYARD THEATRE LOCALLY, WHEN YOU SANG AND PLAYED BASS. HOW LONG AGO WAS THAT?
Ooh. 2001? Again, when I was 12.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU PLAYED BASS – AND WHAT ENCOURAGED YOU TO MASTER THAT INSTRUMENT?
I’ve been playing bass since the age of 12, sometimes every day, sometimes not for months at a time. Currently, very seldom. Why did I take up bass? The answer is simple and probably one true to many bass players: I was a shocking guitarist and the band I joined already had better guitar players than myself. I drew the “short straw”, if you will. But one I am very happy to have drawn.
WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME STAGE CAREER HIGHLIGHTS TO DATE?
Singing with a group of girls at Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday (on stage with Very Famous People). Working as a cruise ship musician in the late ’90s (at an extremely tender age, obviously). Playing the title role in Evita in East London in 2012.
YOU MARRIED, THEN IN 2010 MOVED TO EAST LONDON, WHERE YOU NOW TEACH SINGING AND KEEP GOATS.
I got divorced. Then I married again.
I teach a few students basic singing, but my main revenue streams are working for a Durban company, a branding service provider called Success On Hold; working as an MC at the casino in East London, and working as a bingo caller (yes, it’s a real job – who knew?). I also gig around town at private and corporate events, perform for a Port Elizabeth-based production company called Centrestage, and run my own fresh produce business which focuses on cheese and yogurt (made from dairy milk, weekly, to order, by hand).
I have a few chickens and a very handsome rooster, five sheep, one billy goat and 30 does. Some are being milked and others will be milked when they’re old enough.
At the moment, I am selling the goat’s milk (my main customer is a lady who makes dog food for highly pedigreed show dogs), but I am not experimenting with making goat’s milk cheese as man hours are simply too few to develop a new product range.
HOW DOES ‘FARM’ LIFE COMPARE, WHAT INSPIRED THAT LIFE CHANGE – AND DO YOU MISS THE BRIGHT LIGHTS AT ALL?
I will never be able to live in the ‘burbs again after experiencing smallholding life.
The change was inspired by the fact that I developed food allergies in my early 20s and, subsequently, I had the desire to be a bit more responsible for my own food chain so that I could try to avoid nasty additives.
Being closer to the source of the food I choose to eat (and the food, therefore, requiring less in terms of preservatives and processing) has definitely made a difference to my heath and energy levels.
I do not miss the bright lights as I get enough stage action in my life. The only things I do miss about Big City Life is the access to Cinema Nouveau and having a variety of live productions always available, and TV/film career options (she’s not big in East London… but that may be changing…). However, I would not trade my gumboots to get that back.
HOW OFTEN HAVE YOU PERFORMED SINCE MOVING TO EAST LONDON, AND WHERE MOSTLY?
Every single week. The nice difference between the Big City and Small Town entertainment career is that Big City tends to stream your talent. For example, if you’re a bass player, you will always get booked as such and will always remain such. How dare you branch into MC work? That’s for MCs!
Small Towns need folk who are going to take on several tasks. Small Towns support your random endeavours. I’ve played bass, sung chorus roles, played lead parts in big and small productions, acted as programme director/MC, been a bellydance competitor, been hired as a musical director (and my piano skills are laughable), taught singing, acted as an auctioneer and was even an announcer at sporting events. These are all tasks I most probably would never have been considered for in the Big City.
INTERESTING THAT BOTH YOU AND BROTHER, DURBAN-BASED BRYAN HILES, MOVED INTO SHOWBIZ? ANY FAMILY IN SHOWBIZ BEFORE?
Um. Yes. But that’s a closely guarded family secret and may or may not involve my dad dressed in drag.
The Hiles family has a lush history of amateur dramatics and folk club appearances, but I think Bryan and I are the only two to have taken it pro. Ah, and Uncle Gordon, who is a professional filmographer.
HAVE YOU AND BRYAN EVER PERFORMED TOGETHER? ALSO, WHAT CHANCES OF THE TWO OF TEAMING IN FUTURE FOR A SHOW?
We have. But these performances are limited to “once upon a time” when we lived in the same town: a nativity show here, a fundraiser there, a school play in primary school…
We’d both be keen to do something together, but scheduling and location are proving to be rather annoying hurdles. It’ll come together when the time is right.
YOU PLAYED TEENAGER JACQUI KRUGER IN TV’S “ISIDINGO” – WHAT MEMORIES OF THAT EXPERIENCE?
I played in Isidingo from 2000 to 2002 and my overwhelming memories from that time involve the fellow actors. And also the occasional “adoring fan” moment – like the time I was in a lift in an hotel in Cape Town and one of the hotel staff members asked me how I liked South Africa). I realised that television is an extremely powerful medium.
YOU WERE ALSO A TOP 50 FINALIST ON THE 2001 SEASON OF “SOUTH AFRICAN IDOLS”. WHAT MEMORIES OF THAT?
Oh gosh. It was a bit of a blur to be honest. I kept having to sneak out of the compound to attend to Isidingo filming or perform at the Barnyard Theatre in Alberton. I felt like a bunking scholar!
WHERE AND WHEN WERE YOU BORN, AND WHERE EDUCATED? I UNDERSTAND YOU STUDIED DRAMA AT TECHNIKON NATAL IN DURBAN?
I was born inPietermaritzburg! I lived in Howick for the first few years of my life, then Botswana, then Virginia (Free State), and, finally, East London. I studied two years of a three-year drama diploma at Natal Tech, then worked on a cruise ship and moved to Johannesburg, where I lived for many years before moving back to East London.
WHAT MARKED YOUR FIRST PROFESSIONAL STAGE PERFORMANCE, AND WHAT DO YOU MOST REMEMBER OF IT?
My first professional performance was with the band Turbo Beat when I was about 13 or 14, as bass player and vocalist. I think it was at the old Lock Street Gaol in East London. I earned a whopping R20, with which I bought my first shares – which allowed me later to buy my very own bass amp.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST REGRET?
I wish I had grasped more of the piano lessons I had as a child. I wish I had more time to learn to speak isiXhosa. Tap dancing lessons would have also been a bonus. Beyond some personal bad behaviour I wish I could erase, there’s no regret in my life.
WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF THAT THE AVERAGE PERSON IS NOT LIKELY TO KNOW, HOWEVER TRIVIAL THEY MAY BE?
- I’m not a great cook, but I’m really creative with leftovers.
- I can’t judge volume/depth/space very well, but when it comes to packing vehicles full of gear, I’m an ACE at Tetris.
- When I swing my arms forwards or backwards, it’s as if my face runs out of skin and causes my lips to pull in strange directions.
- I can sing whistle register.
- My sheep mistrust me when I wear a dress.
WHAT IS THE MOST FRIGHTENING THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO YOU?
I think the closest I ever came to thinking I was a goner was being hijacked by three armed guys in my driveway in Joburg. But I was more angry than frightened, I guess. Other than that, it was my neighbour chasing me with a live locust and actually making the damn thing walk on my leg. I blacked out for a few seconds.
WHO ARE AMONG YOUR IDOLS, WHO DO YOU HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO TIME FOR, AND WHAT THREE FAMOUS PEOPLE WOULD YOU LIKE TO INVITE FOR SUPPER?
Idols? That’s hard. I admire folk who have overcome adversity in better ways than I ever could, like rising above physical handicaps to superhuman heights, or bouncing back from incredible heartache or awful personal circumstances.
I have no time for people who blindly share nonsense on Facebook because the link said “please share”. Do your research, you fool!
I’d like to have supper with Paul McCartney, Sting and Bonnie Raitt. I haven’t a clue what I’d say to any of them, but hopefully they’re great conversationalists and I can just sit and listen.
WHAT IS YOUR MOTTO IN LIFE?
Depending on the situation that calls for a motto, it could range from “more is nog n dag” to “ry, jou p**phol!!!!”
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE ENSCRIBED ON YOUR TOMBSTONE?
Tombstone? What even? Recycle what you can, burn the rest, and throw my ashes to the wind.
Let my tombstone be whatever is etched on the minds of the people whose paths I crossed. I pray it is good and inspiring.