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Theatre Review: ZHE [noun] undefined

Why is it so important to us to define ourselves? Chuck Mike gives us a peek in, to ZHE why.

Shera St.Clair | January 15, 2013

1. zhe: the latest word to infect your vocabulary.

2. Zhe: not a ‘he’ or a ‘she’; proposed neutral gender.

3. ZHE: a life-changing play that celebrates identity through the art of storytelling.

Zhe made its powerful American premier at the Firehouse Theatre this past weekend, leaving a packed-house standing ovation (stuffed with overflow seating) in its wake.  This Collective Artistes production, created and directed by Chuck Mike, follows the true-life stories of two British-Africans, as they navigate through culture deviations, gender identities and the complex struggles of life.

Antonia Kemi Coke and Tonderai Munyevu, the two actors/characters of the play, take turns chronicling their journeys from the earliest memories of life up through the present day. Their stories, far from simple, include details of alcohol and sexual abuse, identity crisis, homelessness, broken homes, estrangement, gender struggle and sexual awakening.

One of the initial stories is a childhood recollection of Tonderai’s mother while they lived in Zimbabwe. In this scene, he describes the aged family maid, who hastily scrubbed him down every evening before greeting his mother. Antonia hunches over, roughly grabs Tonderai and bathes him, all while he continues this memory monologue of waiting for mother. Playing multiple unnamed characters, the actors fluidly and precisely transition from their own familiar past, to the history of their counterpart. Tonderai frequently transforms into Antonia’s strong-willed, church-going father, exclaiming “dahs’ my girl!” when she discovers how to pee standing up.

The Firehouse’s modest dimensions and matte black background, which repeatedly provide for an intimate experience, successfully drop the audience right in the eye of each actor’s emotional storm. Lighting design, by Cis O’Boyle, was minimal, but Rebecca Smith’s sound design showcased the two performers’ modulated talents. Consisting mainly of African chants and songs by composer Juwon Ogungbe, Antonia and Tonderai’s frequent a cappella duets were dynamic and the simple echoes of their voices inspiring. Costumes were completely androgynous, with both actors in plain black zip-up hoodies, black pants and running shoes. Each did carry a unique scarf that transformed to a handful of props, including pool sticks, aprons and robes.

Zhe captures moments of humor- evident from numerous eruptions of laughter from the audience. This is, however, far from a light-hearted tale, and I appreciate that Mike did not over simplify the stories. Though intense through the characters’ vulnerability, every element and bit of story was strategically and specifically placed- leading up to the conclusion.

The characters, or should I say actors, captivated my attention as they exposed themselves with a raw honesty. As I glanced at a few open-mouthed faces around me, I felt the whole audience was in awe of the deep layers being sliced away in front of us. This isn’t just a story with words in a script; these actors are reliving every joyous, tragic and shocking moment in their personal searches toward understanding and identity.

The final scene was initially frustrating, as both actors stood at opposite edges of the stage, and simultaneously revealed the rest of their stories. I found it impossible to hear both, and didn’t want to choose listening to one over the other. After a few minutes of confusion, I realized it wasn’t really about what they were saying, but what they were showing. Up until this point, the whole play was a conversation of tolerance- there was a speaker and a listener. Now both were speaking, neither was listening, and someone was inevitably drowned out. Their point proved true to human nature. Tolerance… no matter your orientation, identity, race or culture… is only accomplished through sharing, listening and storytelling.


You have one more chance to catch ZHE: [noun] Undefined in Richmond, VA.  They will be at the Modlin Center for the Arts 18th January, 7.30pm (check out www.modlin.richmond.edu for tickets and details), before heading to the Marjorie Lyons Playhouse in Shreveport, LA, Jan.21st-25th, and then back to the U.K.

Collective Artistes (CA)  is a professional theatre company committed to producing excellent theatrical experiences that tell the stories of the African Diaspora. These projects are designed to empower communities and to promote cultural diversity, tolerance and equality.