Zandile: a play that must be seen

MoMo Matsunyane is Zandile. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer

MoMo Matsunyane is Zandile. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer

Gogo. These two syllables, under Gcina Mhlophe’s pen in the classic South African play Have You Seen Zandile?, embrace everything that a loving, hard working grandmother is about: Vulnerable, pugnacious when necessary, and above all, capable of real love. On stage 28 years ago this astonishingly fine work comes back to full fresh life in a glorious production, which honours the play’s roots and heart yet offers its own fabric and texture.

On a microcosmic level Have You Seen Zandile? is a tale of eight-year-old Zandile and her Gogo in Durban and of how she is spirited away to the rural area of Transkei by her mother, to be raised in the traditional rubric: she cannot be educated, must marry young, must work her body hard in the field. It’s a tale of deep love stamped on by financial dearth, political complexity and heart break. And it’s about broken dreams and ultimately broken hearts.

Carried with dignity and such beautiful authenticity by MoMo Matsuyane and Zethu Dlomo, the work reflects the dynamic of little girls – it opens with Zandile as an exuberant eight year old, and takes us through her teen years. With just a tweak to her hairstyle and costume, and considerable adjustments to her delivery, Matsuyane, an utterly extraordinary performer, embraces with such rich truths all the values of being a child: from the way in which she draws or speaks to the flowers to the beautiful artlessness of how she declares her dreams for a beautiful future.

Dlomo, too, in the role of the mother, grandmother and Lindiwe, a school friend, is able to beautifully manipulate her body to embrace the age of the character she is performing, fleshing out the susceptible yet gutsy Gogo with heart and soul, as she paints a reflection of the child’s mother with severity and coldness that comes of hurt. Mhlophe has constructed all her characters with a genuine human fondness, enfolding everything from myths and horrors of menstruation from within a pre-puberty sensibility to the age-specific games that children play.

Indeed, the games form a considerable part of the absolutely wonderful set, which utilises the blackness of the theatre space as immediate blackboards. Chalk drawings of stick figures and fishes and a house with a pointy roof and flowers with smiles adorn the space with the gritty realism of childhood happiness. There’s also a brilliant set which forms part of the work. Part cupboard, part screen, it reflects the moon and the grass as it is a repository for important things like letters from a child.

Have You Seen Zandile? is one of those unequivocal theatre moments, which bring together script, design, direction and performance with an impeccable sense of respect for the discipline, the work and its history, but not without a rambunctious sense of fun and real emotion. A lot of the dialogue is not in English, but if you do not speak isiXhosa, you are not left out. There’s a melding of language with movement, a kneading of gesture with word that makes for an imminently legible and totally consuming play. You leave this theatre knowing exactly why it is considered a classic.

  • Have You Seen Zandile? is written by Gcina Mhlophe, directed by Khutjo Green and designed by Wilhelm Disbergen. It is performed by MoMo Matsunyane and Zethu Dlomo at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until October 26.
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