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In The Donkey Child, there is a strong image of a young child dressed in a paramilitary outfit, leaping on to the shoulders of a man dressed in a white jumpsuit and growling at a crowd of children until they flee in terror. Standing on the shoulders of giants, indeed. The roles are played by Kabelo Ndlovu and Daniel Buckland.
They have an interesting, sweet relationship, but don’t communicate in English words. Instead they use noises, body language and sometimes Zulu. The two of them end up befriending the donkey child, while Buckland’s character ends up romancing the mother, played by Vishanti Kali (pictured with Buckland).
Buckland comes from pedigreed actors, as in the Buckland family. He has also toured the world with Cirque du Soleil.
“When I was first invited to join them, I was in Las Vegas with my father, Andrew,” he recalls. “It was a weird experience. It wasn’t uncomfortable, just surreal. With Cirque du Soleil you are a creative cog in a giant machine. I was an emotional acrobat.”
About playing one of the leads with Ndlovu in The Donkey Child, Buckland is impressed.
“Kabelo has emotional maturity. He is constantly on the ball. He is uncomfortable with normality. He is an old spirit and has his own physical language of mime. I try hard to keep up with him.”
Indeed this feisty 11-year-old is immediately noticeable on stage. He has a confident, masculine presence, which is unusual for that age group. It is also clear that if he carries on with theatre, he has a bright future ahead. He has star quality.
“The cool thing about this play is that it is based on relationships with real people,” says Buckland. “This is about raw and real people and not shizam shizam. It’s about celebrating the rehearsal process.
“Because we come from different backgrounds, we found a new language of communication. We are celebrating the differences and the things that bond us.”
Kali, whose background is in dance, agrees: “It was the most amazing process. In a lot of ways it is why we all get into theatre. The process was about trusting each other. (Director) Lindiwe Matshikiza was great in not jumping in and keeping that to the end.”
Of her role, which she plays with elegance and gentle movement – which characterises so many dancers – Kali says: “For my character there is a sense of disbelief and shame when she gives birth to the donkey, but also a sense of recognition.”
She continues: “I identify with her because she is a performer and a dancer, but she has hidden everything. I am also a mother. So you have this weird child, which sometimes you are alone with, and it is screaming. Thoughts of, ‘do you chuck it away?’ But you also want it to be part of your life.”
• The Donkey Child, which explores themes of isolation, rejection and acceptance, opens tomorrow night at the Hillbrow Theatre. It is a unique, chaotic, sometimes noisy piece of work suitable for old and young audiences. It opens with a show at 11.30am for schools followed by a 7pm show. On Thursday there is a 6.30pm show. On Friday there are two shows, a schools show at 11.30am plus a 6.30pm show. Saturday’s shows are at 1pm and 5pm.