5 Questions for Lindiwe Matshikiza

Lindiwe Matshikiza
Lindiwe Matshikiza | Lindiwe Matshikiza © Stephanie O'Connor

A pregnant woman is greeted with much celebration among strangers – until the child is born and resembles a donkey. We spoke to Lindiwe Matshikiza, writer-director of the stage play 'Donkey Child'.

The theatre production 'The Donkey Child' is based on a story that you wrote. What was your inspiration?

The stage play is based on an idea that I thought might be many things including a kind of tall tale or children’s storybook, and that has taken many forms over the years. When I lived in Grahamstown, I was fascinated by the presence and nature of the donkeys that some people keep as part of a variety of ways to subsist. I’d see baby donkeys curled up like kittens on someone’s stoep, older donkeys roaming the streets at night braying, people worrying about the health of their donkeys… I found their awkward, funny appearance beautiful in some way, and lonely, and I started to daydream about a story where a woman gave birth to a child who was a donkey and then had to deal with what this could all mean.

'The Donkey Child' explores the concept of being an outsider through some of its main characters: the donkey’s mother, the donkey itself, as well as Daniel and a little boy by the name of Kabelo. Can you elaborate on this idea? Does being different make one an outsider, especially in the context of multicultural South Africa?

Firstly, I should point out that Kabelo’s character is one of the many that were developed during the workshop process. In the original script – more a working draft than a complete piece of writing – only the characters of the donkey, his mother, a general idea of a chorus and a prototype for Daniel’s character existed. Early during the process, it was clear that Kabelo and Daniel had a special connection and so they would regularly rehearse small comic sequences, finding material together. It became obvious that we needed to find a way in the story to bring them together and show off this partnership. Like most other things we found during the process, the play reflects the discovery of the unexpected and magical during that nine-week period. I think being different doesn’t obviously make one an outsider; one can choose to see it as ‘special’ or ‘gifted’ or ‘unwelcome’, and one can also form subcultures and cults around that status or identity until the point that one is no longer an outsider at all.

I suppose the question is: An outsider according to what and to whom? The characters in the play are often acting this dilemma out as a community, as smaller groups within that community and as individuals. All of us collaborating artists came into the Hillbrow Theatre Project as outsiders. And then we did something together; and now we can say we hold some place there on the inside, even if only as a temporary community – whether it be physical, artistic or simply a place in our collective memory. The act of doing this project is also about consciously contributing to the debate around social and artistic hierarchy – imaginary or constructed. In the same way that it is left open to debate whether the characters have constructed their own status as outsiders or have been forced out by a voice that is presumed to be the majority, the collective of people telling the story are artists operating in various sections of the general arts industry that are sometimes described as ‘underground’, ‘niche’, ‘mainstream’, ‘children’s theatre’, ‘community theatre’… all with their own problematic implications and associations. When all these different people choose to create a work that represents all of them, what should we call it? Should we call it anything? Of course, these are things we’re dealing with in South Africa on a variety of levels, but ultimately the question of the outsider and of identity is universal.

The donkey’s mother leads a nomadic lifestyle. Is this by choice or by necessity, because she is being shunned by the community?

I like that there is mystery around that. It lets us all wonder whether it was her lifestyle that led to her bizarre dilemma, and maybe confront our assumptions about eccentricity and morals. We discussed it a lot during rehearsals, trying to imagine the sequence of events that led to her pregnancy, talking about how the chorus might respond to her sudden appearance, and how she might negotiate a place among them. Even when she leaves the community after the birth of the donkey child, it is a choice on her part, something we also discussed at length. As a result, the audience has to decide whether she preempted being shunned and acted in the only way she could think of, or whether the conflict could have been resolved some other way that didn’t require her to be cast out.

How was your experience of working with so many child actors on this stage play?

It was unlike any other project I’ve been a part of, and I’m certain a large part of it is because of the unique space that is the Hillbrow Theatre Project (HTP). All their young members are there by choice and in their own time between school and home, which I think lends a special sense of purpose and enthusiasm that one might not always find among young people of the same age who feel obliged or forced to take part in something, for whatever reason. Then the training and experience they are exposed to by the facilitators and by other creative influences in the space means that the level of creativity and artistic understanding is very high. It was amazing to watch some of the pre-teens and teenagers have a far better understanding of the basics of theatre than I had at that age, and it meant that, even with only a small amount of time to work every day, we could work in quite an intense and mature way.

The performers there are generally very confident and that was an important element when working in the improvisational way that we did, guided more or less by instinct and spontaneity. A lot of the performers there are also not only actors but singers, dancers (in particular some performers from Keleketla! Library who also joined the process of their own volition), ventriloquists, musicians… so there was an unlimited variety of skills to work with, and it was very exciting to see various individuals discover they had other abilities too. That was the great advantage of having worked across so many disciplines.

Being with that group of people every day was so stimulating and joyful for me, and at the same time very challenging, learning how to manage a large group of young people with the right measure of authority, encouragement, gentleness or strictness as the moment required. One is necessarily drawn into caring quite deeply as well, becoming involved in all kinds of situations that one wouldn’t encounter working exclusively with adults, such as dentist appointments and talking to parents. It felt like a very big responsibility to make sure the new adults could be trusted, and for me it was crucial that the collaboration was true to who the individuals involved are, whatever their age. And, as you can imagine, there were a few days when the adults got good reminders of what it was to be a teenager also…

After'The Donkey Child', you are now off to Paris, to work on a theatre production there. How does South Africa’s theatre scene compare internationally, and where would you like South African theatre to go in the future?

I’m part of several collaborative art projects with a company called Lézard Dramatique (LZD) based in France. It started a few years ago with a production called Ster City and we discovered a very strong creative affinity between us so the collaborations have continued. I feel very lucky to have landed with these particular people, including Nicholas Pule Welch who is also South African, and involved in many very interesting projects of his own. One of the reasons I enjoy working with LZD, and with Nick, is that I never feel that there is an unconstructive comparison to be made between what we do here and what they do there; it’s play with a lot of philosophical substance behind it. Of course, we talk about shows we’ve seen on either side and debate why they are what they are, or whether they could be successful or even possible here or there. We’ve been able to move between conversations in South Africa or in France about theatre and about cultural identity and so on with other artists and audiences and it makes for a very rich experience. Perhaps the best thing to be reminded of has been that there is bad theatre and amazing theatre anywhere you go, and, by the sounds of it, a lot of the same issues around funding and arts management. In terms of audiences, I find that South African theatre audiences are more free with their responses (in Johannesburg at least), and that’s something that I always forget when we perform in Europe. You find yourself thinking, ‘They hate it. They’re definitely hating it…’ and then people are very animated after the show or give you a standing ovation or something, so you start to think about what kind of validation artists seek and how it manifests itself in different contexts. I think there’s a lot to be discussed in South African theatre circles regarding how we perceive categories and genres within the scene and whether we may be holding onto some outdated notions of where and how theatre takes place, and with whom. The shows I hear people raving about recently are often those made by independent artists collaborating authentically with each other, and often in unconventional spaces. They’re received well because more and more people the world over want to see authentic theatre that is potent against all perceived odds, and artists getting on with the work of portraying ordinary and intelligent human stories imaginatively without forcing them into a popular prescribed narrative or spectacle.

The Donkey Child was performed at the Hillbrow Theatre in Johannesburg from 26.03.2014 to 29.03.2014. The production was supported by the National Arts Council of South Africa and the Goethe-Institut South Africa.