008 19.03.2014 Director of The donkey child Lindiwe Matshikiza, poses for a photograph at the Hillbrow theatre, Johannesburg. Picture: Itumeleng English

The energy around Lindiwe Matshikiza is light as she sits in the front row of the Hillbrow Theatre directing a project called The Donkey Child. In her press release she describes it as “a story that has lingered around my imagination”.

“Thanks to the development of a beautiful partnership with the Hillbrow Theatre Project, the story has grown to something much bigger and better than I could have continued to imagine alone.”

Using some of her close creative friends as well as teenagers and children from the neighbourhood who participate in the Hillbrow Theatre Project, she workshopped The Donkey Child for three months. It is about a lone traveller, played by Vishanthi Khali (pictured), who gives birth to a donkey.

The show, which begins tomorrow night, germinated in Matshikiza’s mind when she was studying in Grahamstown.

“There are lots of donkeys in Grahamstown society,” she explains. “I was fascinated by how the people looked after them. Donkeys would be nurtured when they were young and would curl up on their owners’ stoeps and sleep.

“I thought it would make a cool children’s story if she gave birth to a donkey and then figured out how to reconcile her identity. In the beginning I did not know whether it would be cartoon or theatre.”

While The Donkey Child was her idea, the actress and director insists the show is highly collaborative. She gathered a group of people like The Brother Moves On’s Siya Mthembu, Daniel Buckland, Siya Makuzeni, Joao Orecchia and Noluthando Lobese to be part of not only creating the production’s music, but also developing its storyline and visual style.

The dancing was workshopped using a cast of more than 20 young members of the Hillbrow Theatre Project and the neighbouring Keleketla! Library.

What is interesting is that the characters all use different ways to communicate. The mother only uses movement, others use dance, still others use noises and then some speak in various African languages. However, at no time is the audience left in the dark as to what is being communicated on stage.

There is a universal language The Donkey Child has discovered which makes the play that much more unusual and interesting.

The grown donkey is managed by four puppeteers who are visible throughout the play.

He makes for such a cute but vulnerable, clumsy character. And, when he dreams that he has a “normal” acceptable body, it is heart- wrenching.

The play, while using actors from the community, cannot be classified as a community production.

It is way too challenging and there is way too much depth of thought that went into it.

Matshikiza agrees: “What we see as highbrow theatre and community theatre is tricky to negotiate. I worked for a while in Cape Town and basically if you’re black you’re automatically classified into community theatre and there would be patronising comments.

“This collective is made up of such a range of people, culturally, age-wise, that can you still define it using the old assumptions? I mean, you have 11-year-olds teaching 36-year-olds and vice versa.

“We have crumpers, ventriloquists, choreographers who are discovering they can act. It was a crazy, chaotic process.”

The collective was so caught up in the creative process and making it their own that Lindiwe believes the play had to be a reflection of marking “the end of a process. The play celebrates all the things we found in the process”.

She also says that is why her directing style is not autocratic, which is often a characteristic of directors in theatre around the world.

“My directing style is all related to the environment. I am firm, but balanced. A lot of the cast are young teenagers who have issues at home or school and we have to work around that. For instance, during the rehearsals some principals would decide to keep the school late after class and we would have to wait until they arrived.

“They are not adults who can control their own schedules. Those kind of things could not be seen as obstacles. We just had to find a solution. Suddenly it makes space for magical accidents to happen.”

The show does not only appeal to children. There are a lot of adult themes throughout and the music is also experimental, being a combination of African traditional and choral as well as some progressive sounds.

Matshikiza believes that her having appeared in two high-profile films including The Long Walk to Freedom – in which she played Zinzi Mandela – will help bring people to the theatre. “What I have been trying to do is reconcile the side of me that is visible and connect the underground theatre side of myself.”