‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ The question is shouted into the cafe where Tonderai Munyevu is meeting a friend. Antonia Kemi Coker has faced the same question. ‘Why,’ they both want to know, ‘is it so important to define?’
Munyebvu, a Zimbabwean immigrant, has a testosterone deficiency. At one audition (for another Collective Artistes production) he was mistaken for a woman by Kemi Coker, who has herself lived ‘a lifetime of people thinking I'm who I'm not.’ A phone call of apology grew into a promise to make a show together.
To their surprise − and despite initial reservations − 'Zhe' is an autobiographical piece. Their two stories plait together. Both have alcoholic fathers and, after years of struggling in their own skin, both are guided towards their sexuality by others. The label ‘gay’ helps initially, bringing fresh freedoms of self-acceptance, but there are further lows ahead − of substance abuse and reckless behaviour. Labels don't solve identity issues. They don't tell the full story.
‘Zhe’ makes rough and ready theatre. It's overly illustrative and stops short of full disclosure, even if, chronologically speaking, nothing gets left out. The events are all there, but you sense some of the emotions remain too raw.
Even so, this is a profoundly empathetic experience; theatre as a chance to understand another's window on the world. Four years after they first performed it, it still takes bravery from Munyevu and Kemi Coker. One suspects the piece has helped them − more than even the therapy that both dismiss as an expensive exercise in clock-watching.
That's odd, because it's there they learn the gender neutral pronoun 'zhe'. While the title seems to advocate it, it's a shame that Chuck Mike's production never really unpicks the idea or its possibilities.
By Matt Trueman