“Zhe: [Noun] undefined reviewed” – Not Just Another Gay Play

Posted on March 17, 2012


I was lucky enough to see ‘Zhe: [noun] undefined‘, a performance piece created by Chuck Mike,  Artistic Director of Collective Artistes, Antonia Kemi Coker and Tonderai Munyevu. Collective Artistes is a theatre production company that produces socially relevant plays that tell the stories of the African Diaspora. Their newest creation Zhe follows the lives of two British Africans from childhood to adulthood. Zhe had visited the UK recently on its preview tour and the screening I attended was at Tara Arts in Earlsfield, London.

I first came across Zhe in February at the start of LGBT History Month. I had just published the piece on Zanele Muholi and had made a promise to myself to attend at least one LGBT event and write about it. I was keen to discover events centred on queer people of colour and so was glad to stumble upon Zhe. The piece was advertised on the LGBT History Month website and all it took to convince me that I needed to see it were the intriguing title and the faces on the poster.

I never made it to the Canada Water screenings because they clashed with a work event(which I also did not attend, not even going to get into what I was doing…long story) and I was gutted.

Things turned around when Cronie 1 from Ruby Tuesdays pleasantly surprised me. She called to ask if I would like to see a play and I was like “sure, what’s it called?”

She then went on to tell me about how she has some long drawn out connection with creator of this play yadi yadi yah…Long story short, we were going to see Zhe on Friday!

I didn’t get a chance to research Zhe beforehand or read reviews. I just thought I would wait and see. Of course, those who know what happened at Ruby Tuesdays know that Cronie 1 suffers from chronic malaise of time-keeping.  Those of us who know her better were silly enough to rely on her to navigate us across London so we missed the first ten minutes of the play. On the good side of things, it’s a play I want to see again so there will definitely be something new for me to find out.

Luckily for us, Tara Arts isn’t hard to  find. It’s a small theatre right opposite Earlsfield Station. I was ready to get right into it once we took our seats.

I was sat on the second row from right and the thought that immediately crossed my mind was how tiny the room was.  Being so close to the characters made me feel like I had really been stuck into it. Unlike in the picture, the walls around the room were black and all attention was focused on the two characters of the play; Kemi and Tonderai.

The first set of words I made sense of was Tonderia telling Kemi a recollection from his childhood. His family had a maid who used an incredibly rough stone to scrub him down in the bath every evening as part of the daily ritual of preparing him to greet his mother when she returned from work.

Kemi and Tonderai took turns to tell each other, and us(the audience) the stories of their lives, moving around the little space in the theatre.  Zhe chronicles their journeys from their earliest memories up till where they are as people in the world. Their stories are far from simple.  They contain woes of alcohol and sexual abuse, homelessness, estrangement from friends and family, gender identity crises, sexual awakening and re-awakening, identity struggles and many more.

As I listened to the characters expose themselves, I was held in the aura created by the echoing of their voices. Bear in mind, it is very hard for something to capture my full attention. I know the rest of the audience was captivated because when something funny happened, laughter rang out like a chorus. When a scene felt like approaching climax, I could almost hear people’s heartbeats in anticipation and when the story came to a low point, I felt the sadness of everyone in the room pour out towards our characters.

This is not a story for the light-hearted and I’m glad Chuck Mike did not simplify things for us. Hearing and somewhat experiencing what both characters had been through was a very intense experience for me. There were many themes, struggles and victories within the character’s recollections that came close to home for me.  For those I didn’t identify with I couldn’t help but feel empathy. I got so sucked into the pay that when it ended it felt like someone had nicked the last slice of pizza I was eye-balling. I wanted more.

Zhe concludes on a victory note. I cannot say for certain that our characters have no more life battles but I consider their ability to share themselves with strangers a compelling victory. The final scene was an ‘incantation’ declaring freedom. Freedom from being boxed into gender binaries, freedom from submitting to societal or cultural expectations, and most importantly freedom to love and accept themselves wholly.

This is essentially the message Kemi and Tonderia recited;  running around the little room, stomping on their props and flailing their limbs in conviction. By the time, they quieted down and we knew it was over, I struggled to gain my composure as I joined the applause.

The performance was followed by a discussion. It was a rare opportunity for the audience to get more insight into the intentions of the creators. One of the questions I asked Chuck Mike was if he they would tour in African cities such as Lagos. His answer: let’s not hold our breaths.

The theatre company plans to use the response generated from the preview tour to develop the play further before it fully kicks off. I can’t wait for it to return so I can rave some more about it. A performance piece like Zhe comes at a very crucial point in the struggle for LGBTQ equality in many African countries. Chuck Mike, Antonia Kemi Coker and Tonderai Munyevu have done something novel by presenting those who claim that same-sex love is UnAfrican with this story. Kemi’s and Tonderai’s stories are much more that just about their attraction to people of  the same gender. Its about being human and going through life but no longer in a passive state. It’s about grabbing life by the balls and living it on your own terms.

Watch this space for more info about Zhe!

If you would like to tell your story through the African LGBT YourStory blog, collective artistes want to hear it!

Posted in: Reviews