Rarely in realms beyond the scope of politics does one encounter personalities of the stature of Taubie Kushlick. In South Africa they are most likely to exert dominance in big business. Yet Taubie Kushlick, an actress, served the commerce of theatre in this country as well as its art to a degree not before experienced. Her personality was so forceful, her entrepreneurship so adventurous, her successes (and her failures) so epic, that given the demographic changes that have shaped our culture since her day we are not likely to see her likes again. 

She was strong-featured, if not handsome, and immensely vital. She could arrest attention with a sharp look and command action with a blistering comment. A grandiloquent flourish with a beringed hand deployed a fine instinct for whatever was needed in any theatrical context. A great many South Africans who came under her influence as apprentices and neophytes found her unstoppable. She moulded them like clay.

This dominant personality was widely recognised by her peers. A distinguished Irish actor of her time, Micheal MacLiammoir, wrote in his autobiography about enjoying dinner at her home in Johannesburg. He observed her ordering her husband about with a sharp rap on the table with a huge ring worn on her little finger. "Kushie!" she barked peremptorily, and Dr Philip Kushlick, an eminent medical man in his own right, would leap to her little-finger command.

The Kushlick name belonged to an extended family of medical men in South Africa, though no connection with the arts seems to exist before Taubie. She was born a Braun, of a family who emigrated from Kovno, in Lithuania, and settled in Luckhoff, a small town in the Orange Free State. In South Africa Solomon Braun met and married Cecilia Lewis, from London, and Taubie was born the second of seven children.

What might first appear to be an affectionate nickname, "Taubie" was never the contraction of a longer name. It was her given name, one which proved in the long run oddly ironic. It is the German form of"little dove", which in her adult life was never descriptive of the theatrical personality she assumed.

Solomon Braun, involved in the wool trade, soon migrated with his business to Port Elizabeth, the country's principal wool-shipping centre. There the family grew and, like many another, amused itself with family theatricals. Taubie developed into the leading spirit of the entertainment. Her nascent theatrical drive led her to take lessons in drama, and a local tutor prevailed on her parents to let her go abroad to study She spent two years at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she earned two medals, a gold and a silver. Returning to Port Elizabeth with her new skills, she inspired an amateur theatrical movement among her peers, and a Shakespearian tradition was planted in the community, which honoured her at reunions long after she had moved on to professionalism.

These were the first achievements of her long career foreshadowing the swathe she cut through the theatre and the energy with which she pursued it. She was as restless as a prowling tigress. By the Second World War she had met and firmly married her "Kushie". The war took the young doctor away to serve in the Middle East, and Taubie left for Johannesburg, where, lonely and adrift, she threw herself into the city's lively amateur theatre.

Her first stage appearance was in a negligible thriller. She was cast as a "heavy" a villainous old woman terrorising a young heiress for her inheritance. It was a bravura performance whose force remained with Taubie through the next half-century. It was found later in her portrayal in the Anhouil drama The Eagle has Two Heads in which she played a passionate queen opposite a romantic prince. Anhouil had furnished the queen with an impassioned harangue a speech lasting an uninterrupted twenty minutes of fine, frenzied stage emotion. It was the sort of forbiddingly lengthy passage sometimes found in Shakespeare. Taubie revelled in it.

That was by no means the end of Taubie's career. After many roles demonstrating her prowess as an actress she progressed to directing. She produced Shakespeare more than once, and notably, an innovative presentation in the open air in a Johannesburg municipal park. Here her phenomenal powrer of persuasion was manifest. She prevailed upon the city's director of parks to equip the arena with stage "electrics", entailing expensive underground cabling, switch gear and the like. The lighting effect was impressive, but the municipality had not authorised the expenditure and the official was reprimanded. The facilities were never used again. Future archaeologists may yet find the electric artefacts under the soil of that suburban park - a buried monument, like that of Ozy-mandias, king of kings, to Taubie's towering aspirations.

Soon productions big and small (most, ambitiously sizeable) became her professional domain. Occasionally she collaborated with established theatrical enterprises in the city, chiefly because they owned the bigger playhouses. But when the city erected a large civic theatre, she essayed to open it, staging as its first offering a fine production of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Sadly, the virgin structure betrayed her. The auditorium's acoustics proved unsuitable designed for grand-scale opera, and never a playhouse for all seasons. None of Bolt's fine words could be heard. Such was Taubie's theatrical self-absorption that she blamed the innocent architect for her flop, and years after was heard to growl, "That man! He ruined my production."

Other productions, however, earned high acclaim and considerable box-office returns. In Lilian Hellman's play, The Little Foxes, Taubie established a career landmark as a woman planning a manipulative family murder in the Deep South. Sustaining the character's strong southern accent was one of the actress's abiding triumphs. In later years the entrepreneurial impulse took an ever increasing hold on her. She now demonstrated her persuasive powers over the owners of British and American copyrights denied to apartheid South Africa. Although she had never performed in the West End or on Broadway, she impressed them with her South African hubris.

Sondheim's A Little Night Music promised well and was grandly cast and staged. She imported the settings holus bolus from a previous mounting. Taubie herself pre-empted the leading role of the play's Grande Dame. But the show sagged after a week, owing to mechanical problems in the stage settings unfamiliar to the stagehands.

In a bold break with convention, she imported an entire Greek company of women, chorusing the ancient strophes in original Greek. The leading actress was an Athenian star, Eleka Katselis. The venture was a resounding hit, even though Johannesburg audiences understood not a word!

By the time Taubie tackled Fiddler on the Roof in Johannesburg, the musical and its universal appeal was an established hit worldwide. Tevye and Golda were expected to hold sway over Johannesburg's hearts, not least its Jewish hearts, and run for months. Inexplicably it closed quite soon.

Even more disastrous was Taubie's only attempt to join the tide of black South African theatre. Again the material appeared foolproof George Gershwin's black American folk-opera Porgy and Bess, bringing a huge reputation with it. Black talent there was in abundance for the casting. But Gershwin's orchestrations were unusual, even for Broadway. Taubie was misled as to the capabilities of the musicians found for her theatre pit. So inept was the tone of the production that one newspaper critic dubbed it "amateurish". Taubie, inordinately sensitive about her professionalism, took the matter precipitately to law. The action for damages never came before the courts but her threat smouldered for many months.

One of Taubie's longest suits was the magnetism of her personality, the gravitational pull her successes exerted on young people. They flocked to serve her, always in the hope that something of her magic would prove osmotic. Actresses worked for nominal pay, young managers jumped to her command. Always a fountain of effusiveness, she called them all "Daa-ahling". It became a catchword. But after barrages of "Daa-ahlings" sprayed indiscriminately around, her demands on them, now acquiring an increasingly abrasive edge, sent them off muttering. Yet she was not without public spirit: when the University of the Witwatersrand built its own playhouse, she contributed R20 000 in cash to its construction.

The old fire flared anew when Taubie, on a trip to New York, was introduced to a strange theatrical enthusiasm prevailing there, a minor cult off-Broadway the songs of a Belgian jongleur, Jacques Brel. Taubie brought the programme, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, to Johannesburg, found a cast of singers, unknown but remarkably well-attuned to Brel's peculiar lyric philosophy, staged the group in a Hillbrow cellar (before the district degenerated into a savage slum) and discovered to her surprise, I believe - that the cosmopolitan spirit of Johannesburg conceived an avid taste for it. Thence to the end of her days, Taubie Kushlick was virtually a Brel queen bee, propagating generation after generation of fresh casts singing Brel's songs, staging Brel programmes in cities and towns the length and breadth of South Africa, urging presentations of his canon of songs in various guises. She stretched her obsession with Brel until the material became threadbare. On her deathbed she was planning to assemble a cassette carrying a recording of her version of the show.

Taubie Kushlick was born just this side of the century's first decade; her death occurred an equal distance before the start of the final decade. Her contribution to South Africa's culture was at the very cusp of the entire epoch.


Please note: This biography is a modified extract from the following source: Baneshik, P. (1999) “Taubie Kushlick” from They Shaped our Century: The Most Influential South Africans of the Twentieth Century. Published by Human and Rousseau. p. 428- 431. If you would like to contribute to this biography please click on the contribute tab.

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