RAINBOW TRIO: Kertrice Maitisa, centre, stars alongside Mbulelo Grootboom, left, and Terry Norton in Mike van Graans Rainbow Scars.

Kertrice Maitisa may have a peculiar name but it’s fitting since nothing about the young actress is run-of-the-mill. Having been named after the daughter of a singer her father liked, Maitisa stars along-side Terry Norton and Mbulelo Grootboom in the premiere of Mike van Graan’s new play, Rainbow Scars. In this play directed by Lara Bye that runs alongside Brothers in Blood as a Van Graan double bill at the Artscape Theatre this month, Maitisa plays an interesting character called Lindiwe Robinson.

Set in 1994, it sees young Robinson orphaned in the new South Africa and adopted by Ellen Robinson (Norton). But it’s not all rainbow nations and butterflies when, in 2012, Lindiwe’s world is rocked to the core through a situation that forces her and her adopted mother to face the realities of life as a born-free. Will the situation create a divide between mother and child or will they survive it?

Race relations weren’t the first thing that popped into Maitisa’s mind when she received the Rainbow Scars script. “I read two pages of the script,” says the 19-year-old Afda Cape Town student, “and I thought this girl sounds cool and quirky. I knew she was adopted but I didn’t know she didn’t even know how to speak vernac. I’ve never played a character that was so similar to yet so different from me.”

“Lindiwe is 17 years old and goes to a girls high school,” says Maitisa. “She’s feisty and fiercely independent. She also doesn’t speak any vernacular language so she’s fully ‘coconut’.”

Maitisa, a lover of theatre over television or film (both of which she’s worked in), sounds empathetic to Lindiwe’s life. In 2000, after her father received a job offer, the Maitisas relocated from South Africa to Germany and lived there for four years. It’s also where her 10-year-old sister was born.

“I’m Sotho so I know how to speak it,” she says, “but I went to Model C schools and attended school overseas so there are moments when Lindiwe is called a coconut that I can relate to. In Germany the school I went to taught an American curriculum which meant they didn’t even teach us about Hitler in history. I didn’t really know about Afrikaans or much about apartheid. I knew about Mandela but my parents didn’t really talk about apartheid. It was only much later, in high school, that I started to learn about apartheid.

“I was so oblivious to a person not being able to speak proper English that there were always people trying to make you feel bad,” she continues, “but you can’t throw abuse back at someone who is throwing abuse at you. Then you stoop to their level. So the way I grew up is the way I’ve always known, so I can’t say I wish it was different because I don’t know what I missed out on.”

What Maitisa does know is how to research a character. She reached out to Siphokuhle Mathe, on whom Lindiwe is based, and “I asked her what that was like, if she ever felt excluded because she lived with a white family”, says Maitisa, “I’m in touch with my Pretoria family a lot and I grew up in the township so I know what that’s like, but Lindiwe doesn’t.”

Through this play, Maitisa hopes that people from older generations understand and the younger ones can relate to Lindiwe if they were ever called coconuts or oreos or cheeseboys or cheesegirls.

“Lara (Bye) is a cool, chilled-out director but she’s open to doing things in an unconventional way. Terry Norton has become like my real mom, not just a mom on stage, and the relationship all of us in the play have has become close, so the play is different, even in the way we’ve stylised it and the way we choose to play it.”

• Rainbow Scars runs at the Arena at the Artscape Theatre from today until May 11. Tickets R85/R60 on Tuesdays and Sundays. Book at Computicket.