Complete magic doesn’t often happen in life. But when it does, it needs to be embraced with an unequivocally full heart. Last month, there was a production onstage at the Hillbrow Theatre (formerly the Andre Huguenot Theatre) in the heart of flatland Johannesburg that reached beyond the quota of magic you might think you deserve in one stage production. The season was short, too short, but it made one four legged beast comprising rubbish, into something immortal and tear-evoking and it touched hundreds of children in their hearts, forever.
Donkey Child is the curious and wild tale of a heavily pregnant woman (played by Vishanti Kali), a stranger, coming into the midst of a community. She pushes and struggles and gives birth to … a donkey. But this is no ordinary donkey. It’s a puppet made of commercial detritus and operated by several puppeteers. But it is handled with such a joyous sense of empathy, that you fall in love with it, polystyrene cups for shoes and strings for legs though it may have, and you can’t let go.
The production, which tells a tale that is biblical in proportion, focusing on bullying and xenophobia on its most basic levels, brews more magic than that which sits on the donkey’s back, however. It was the fruit of the efforts of Gerard Bester and Lindiwe Matshikiza, amongst other collaborators and it is focused on touching the children of Hillbrow. There were lots and lots of children onstage – in roles varying from the chorus to main characters, like 11-year-old Kabelo Ndlovu, who really steals the show.
This child is like something out of Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum: too small to be considered adult, too big in his emotional sensibilities, his understanding of nuance and of irony to be considered a child. Dressed as he is in camouflage overalls, he grabs your eye immediately and lends the work a paramilitary flavour, which you can’t quite explain, but are transfixed by. You laugh with him, yet he’s sinister. The role he plays is complicated and emotionally rich.
Generally, kids on stage are problematic. They might think they’re cuter than what they are. They might not be easy to direct. Maybe they might be too young and unlettered to read their words. They’ve more errant energy and are more difficult to discipline. And legally, they’re complicated: you need to have alternative child-casts if you want one child onstage. But oh. The children in this work carried the magic of the story and its four legged creature with a dignity that belied their youth. Choreographed and directed with sensitivity and focus, they came together and seeped into the storyline with a sense of purpose that gaves Donkey Child a Greek-tragedy-like essence, vitality and import.
Daniel Buckland plays another mysterious but pivotal character in the work: dressed in white overalls, he converses with the children and the donkey with a wooden hoop and his extraordinary choreography. There are moments in this work where you need to pinch yourself to remember that this is actually happening before your eyes. It is the kind of beauty that makes you remember why life is so precious. And why it matters to be able to celebrate it.
The Donkey Child project slipped into public consciousness via facebook and the courage on the part of its creators to experiment and simply play. Not only does it represent a work ethos and a spirit of fierceness in creative dynamics, but it yields something completely magical that will blow you away.