A Deep Dive with TVs First Black Mermaid, Sibongile Mlambo

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By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO

The writers of Freeform’s new series “Siren” really know how to ratchet up the suspense. Although TV’s first Black mermaid Donna, played by Zimbabwean actress and former model Sibongile Mlambo, appears in the first three episodes, she remains an enigma.

Mlambo tells the AFRO, “Viewers are gonna gradually get to see more of Donna. You do see her right from the first episode so gradually you will see more of her. It will come around episode four.” That isn’t to say that Mlambo’s character Donna hasn’t already made her mark.

Sibongile Mlambo is one of the stars of Freeform’s ‘Siren.’ (Courtesy photo)

Donna has been kept away from her beloved sister Ryn who escaped the clutches of the government. Donna has been captured and is being experimented on by government scientists. Though she isn’t in her natural environment, she isn’t without the mythical power of mermaids. It appears that at least one of the scientists is weakening under the spell of her siren songs.

Mlambo’s reaction when her manager first approached her about auditioning for the role of a character who is a mermaid is what many of us would expect it to be. “Honestly, when I got the call about the audition,” she says, “I had doubts.” This despite the fact that Black mermaids and mermen such as the gods and goddesses Nommos and Yemaya have been part of the mythology of Africa and the African diaspora, for centuries. Interestingly, the French variation of the name for Yemaya is ‘La Sirene’. Mlambo remembers, “I was like, ‘Really? A Black mermaid?’ It just goes to show you how you can have preconceived ideas.”

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“Black Sails” though unique acting experiences in their own ways, probably didn’t do much to prepare Mlambo for the specific challenges of her new role. Playing Donna demands a lot of time under water. Stunt people, Mlambo shares, are key. “They are very, very important,” she emphasizes. “I know how to swim, but I’m not a strong swimmer so that was probably the most challenging thing was shooting the scenes underwater. So we had to get training. I had breath holding training and I also had to get PADI certified.” PADI is the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. “Eventually,” she says, “I got to the point where I can hold my breath for two minutes and twenty-eight seconds. Even though they use some CGI we still have to be in the water. We also have to use doubles because it does get tiring.”

Judging from the first three episodes, “Siren” has a lot to offer. The show, which premiered March 29, has a thoroughly diverse cast, including a character with a disability. Then there are myriad directions the storyline can take with the relationships between all of the characters who form at least three distinct family units. Donna is Black, while her sister Ryn, is White. Mlambo explains, “I think that we touch in a lot of themes that are very current. One of those for example, being race. Us being sisters and us being different races, in the world where we come from as mermaids, that doesn’t matter. Considering everything happening in the world right now, it is a big thing to say that doesn’t matter.” One can’t help but grasp as metaphor, the idea of the two mermaid sisters having to adapt to life on land amongst ordinary humans. They will find many welcoming and accommodating, and some hostile. “We are sisters and we are in a completely different world. Yes, It touches on us being foreigners in a foreign land. Just being on land is completely new to us.”

Speaking of being in strange places, Mlambo’s work has brought her to a number of different countries, all very different from each other. Of course, she grew up in Zimbabwe in Southeast Africa. She lived in the Dallas area of Texas while pursuing her undergraduate degree in Foreign Languages and Literature at Southern Methodist University, she lived in Spain while modeling, in South Africa while filming “Black Sails,” and now resides in Vancouver, British Columbia on Canada’s west coast, where “Siren” is filmed.

She also spends time in Los Angeles when not filming. With a bevy of disparate climates to choose from, she says her favorite is, “Probably Cape Town, South Africa and then a very close contender is Vancouver; especially Vancouver summer. Not so much in the winter when it starts raining but Vancouver in summer is very beautiful, very green. I grew up in Zimbabwe and that’s very much Savannah so British Columbia is just gorgeous.”