Charmaine Bingwa is one of those rare humans whose energy seems to vibrate on a higher level than most of us, leaving us mere mortals feeling like we are moving in slow motion through molasses in comparison. At 33, the Australian-Zimbabwean has already earned mad respect as a stage performer, launched her own production company, and created an award-winning new web series, Little Sista.
Though the multitalented, out and proud lesbian with an infectious charm also sings and plays guitar professionally (she’s played with artists like Demi Lovato and Fifth Harmony on their tours Down Under), it was her critically-acclaimed performance last year as Mrs. Muller in an Australian stage adaption of Doubt that put Bingwa on everyone’s radar.
The role is one Bingwa seemed destined to play, after she says she become “obsessed” with Viola Davis’s turn as Mrs. Miller, the name of the character in the film version, over a decade ago. “I’m such a nerd like this when I see a scene that I love,” Bingwa explains, saying the now-famous scene stopped her dead in her tracks when she first saw it. Academy voters agreed, nominating Davis for a best supporting actress Oscar for her single-scene appearance in the film. “I paused it and I immediately started transcribing the [scene] by hand,” Bingwa recalls, adding that she began learning the lines “for no reason. There was no job at the end of it.” Then, years later, she says, “Weirdly enough, the role came up for audition.”
Mark O’Conner of Scenestr, an Australian-based pop culture media site, called Bingwa’s turn as Mrs. Muller “the heartbeat” of the production. Bingwa’s costar, Belinda Giblin, played the role of Sister Aloysius — made famous by out actress Cherry Jones on Broadway, and Meryl Streep in the film version. O’Conner continued his rave: “It takes one hell of a performance to top Giblin’s with just one scene, but with the arrival of Mrs. Muller, Charmaine Bingwa is mesmerizing.”
Brad Syke of The Buzz From Sydney also touted the performance, writing that Bingwa gave “a rivetingly, poignant delivery… so finely calibrated it’s elevated to unforgettable status. It’s a theatrical etching; nay, a definitive engraving.”
The ambitious young talent is involved with a dizzying number of projects. In addition to her career-making moment in Doubt, Bingwa also took the stage in five other productions over the course of a year, starred in two recent feature films (including the thriller Nekromancer, costarring Monica Bellucci), and created, wrote, produced, and starred in Little Sista — a seven-episode web series about a somewhat irresponsible, commitment-phobe young lesbian who suddenly takes on mentoring a little girl in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Bingwa says her intention with the series was simply to promote diversity. Born in Australia to Zimbabwean-immigrant parents, she says it wasn’t always easy being different there.
“I grew up in Australia, which is kind of interesting when the rest of your family grew up somewhere else,” she recalls of some of the cultural differences she felt caught between. “I think even the times when [it wasn’t] fun, I turned it into like, a comedy. You know, it’s like that whole, ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ thing.”
As she grew into adulthood and became a working actor, Bingwa was struck by the continued lack of characters and roles that resembled herself or those like her in any way, (queer people of color leading relatively normal lives). This prompted her to add writer and producer to an already impressive list of credentials.
“Unfortunately, there’s still a bit of catch-up in Australia in terms of diversity,” Bingwa says. “I think a 2016 [Australian] statistic was that there are only seven percent of lead characters who are of non-European background” — a number she’s hoping to change with Cha-Bing!, her cleverly named production company.
It seems to be working, with Little Sista receiving well-deserved recognition and praise: the series was a recipient of the 2018 Queer Screen Completion Fund and won Best Screenplay at the 2017 LGBT Toronto Film Festival.
Bingwa’s motivations for pushing more diversity in media representations may be personal, but they are also political. “Right now, I just feel like the world is at a pretty divided place and I think unique voices, unique life experiences, are such a good thing to help unite us and to help us fully understand different perspectives,” she says. “I would just really like for queer to be more accepted and to be normalized.”
“I just hope that the actions that we take now will help the generations coming up to feel more comfortable — to be exactly who they are and to feel more comfortable in their skin.” (@CharmaineBingwa)