ZHE [noun]: undefined

Antonia Kemi Coker, Tonderai Munyebvu and Chuck Mike
Collective Artistes
Soho Theatre (Upstairs)

Tonderai Munyebvu and Antonia Kemi Coker Credit: Robert Day
Tonderai Munyebvu and Antonia Kemi Coker Credit: Robert Day
Antonia Kemi Coker and Tonderai Munyebvu Credit: Robert Day

This two-hander is a beautiful example of two performers in total synergy, performers who enchant and engage the audiences with their personalities, unafraid of making eye contact with them, making them laugh even as they courageously expose their own traumatic experience.

This is a play in which the actors draw on their personal histories with an openness that is exemplary, but it is also very carefully crafted in collaboration with director Chuck Mike.

Antonia Kemi Coker is a British born woman of Nigerian parentage. Tonderai Munyevu was born in Zimbabwe but was sent to England for his schooling. Antonia grew up in Plaistow in care. Tonderai went to boarding school and his mother’s favourite perfume is Poison.

They met at a group audition for Chuck Mike’s production of The African Company presents Richard III. Their backgrounds were different but there was something they share: people sometimes thought Tonderai was a girl (Antonia did), people sometimes thought Antonia wasn’t. Now what does that feel like?

They tell you, playing themselves and the other characters in each other’s stories.

“And me longing to be like everybody else” they say in unison at one point. But aren’t they?

Zhe is one of the words suggested as a third person singular when sex is unspecified or unspecific, a gender-neutral pronoun instead of he or she. This play is about the indeterminance of gender, the fluidity of personality. It is a plea for tolerance—no that’s too weak a call for acceptance of difference, for us to welcome people for what they are and not expect them to conform to some imposed idea of the norm.

It is not a preachy piece. It is warm and funny. It is a blend of two heart-touching stories, bravely and frankly told, that move, amuse and sometimes startle as you share in their self-discovery. Whether dealing with family situations, school, sexual encounters or a caustic encounter with a psychiatrist, there is a vitality that pulses through this play and compels attention.

It seems simply mounted with grey benches and a small black and white splattered ramp, actors in black trousers and hoodies with coloured scarves which are used to aid characterisations and sometimes as props but it is far from simple. Even those anonymous looking costumes are very carefully cut, there is a complex lighting and sound plot, though it never intrudes, and the writing is exact.

It could be played by other actors: it doesn’t rely on the originator’s personalities however much they add to the experience, for it is the honesty of the content that gives it such power.

Antonia Kemi Coker and Tonderai Munyebvu sustain a non-stop 90 minutes with total engagement, fluid physicality and a clarity of speech that today is all too often lacking. They deserved their standing ovation.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton