Chicago Theatre Company

Write about what you know. That’s the advice given to beginning writers, and the conventional interpretation of that advice is this: write about people and places from your own life–people and places you know.

But savvy writers go a step farther and figure out what they know about what they know, which infuses their prose with a canny perspective on people and places. In their hands, everything means something.

Gcina Mhlope (the closest pronunciation in English is “Ticheena Emshalopey”) is not a savvy writer. Her play Have You Seen Zandile? is a straightforward, guileless account of her childhood in South Africa. Yes, she’s black, and she was subjected to the hardships imposed on blacks under apartheid. But the play’s not about that; Zandile is about growing up. Unfortunately, it resembles the work of a child–all observation, no interpretation. As a result, there’s little drama in the play, even though it’s based on Mhlope’s life, which has been highly dramatic, to say the least.

Born in a black neighborhood near Durban, Mhlope was a “love child” raised by a kind elderly aunt who told her stories, bought her presents, and stressed the importance of education. The little girl grew up believing that becoming a teacher was the most honorable station she could achieve in life.

But at the age of ten, the girl’s real mother kidnapped her and took her to live in a primitive Transkei village, where life was built on hard physical labor and tribal customs. The culture shock and Mhlope’s fear about the marriage her mother was trying to arrange for her were so great that the girl began wetting her bed.

Eventually Mhlope was sent to a boarding school, where she attracted the attention of the principal by writing a “praise” poem about him. The principal took her to hear a famous praise poet, and she decided to become a writer.

The highlights of this life are duly recorded in Zandile, and their authenticity is underlined by the presence of Mhlope herself in the title role. There’s a certain sweetness to her simple story. The most endearing scene is that of Zandile and a girlfriend swimming in a stream in the Transkei. They are just entering puberty, and they gossip about one of their friends who, a few days earlier, was swimming in the same stream. The girl suddenly found blood in the water near her and ran home screaming. Zandile and her friend conclude she was bitten by a snake.

Their confusion about sex goes far beyond ignorance about menstruation. “Your bells are bigger than mine,” Zandile says, looking at her girlfriend’s breasts. “Have you been sleeping with boys?”

The scene is authentic and funny–a genuine glimpse of two girls growing up–but most of the play is oppressively sentimental, never transcending the idealized memories of nostalgia. Zandile’s beloved grandmother is kind and gentle, always giving her presents and telling her stories. An imaginary friend is Zandile’s constant companion, providing comfort and reassurance for the lonely girl. Even the mother–the only potential villain in this play–is depicted as ultimately well intentioned, though she kidnaps her daughter and scolds her relentlessly for being lazy.

Some scenes, despite their sentimentality, are salvaged by convincing performances. Willie “Bonnie” DeShong not only portrays Lindiwe, Zandile’s Transkei girlfriend, with zest and imagination, she also manages to draw Mhlope deeply into their scenes together. As a pubescent teen, DeShong is all giggles and excitement, but after her character returns from a trip to Durban, she becomes a comically sophisticated woman of the world, complete with a boyfriend whom she manages to bring into every conversation–to Zandile’s annoyance.

With her strong, no-nonsense performance as Lulama, Zandile’s mother, Cheryl Lynn Bruce cuts some of the sweetness that permeates the play. She creates a complex character, tough and demanding, the embodiment of a sinuous tribal woman. But she also grows soft and affectionate when she recalls how she almost became a professional singer–until she fell in love with Zandile’s father and got pregnant.

Irma Hall’s performance as Gogo–all smiles and sweetness–is presumably just what Mhlope wanted, since the playwright also directed this production.

Onstage, Mhlope seems to embody the spirit of the play. Although a grown woman, she radiates the innocence and openness of a child. She is cute, not beautiful, and utterly disarming in the sincerity with which she presents her story. Also, her ability to pronounce the difficult clicks characteristic of the Xhosa language conjures a distant culture far beyond the experience of Americans.

Mhlope doesn’t seem to know much about what she knows, and her dramatic structure is rudimentary at best. Other South African plays I’ve seen, from the eloquent and beautifully crafted work of Athol Fugard to the electrifying Asinamali! have been powerfully, relentlessly about something. Mhlope’s play is merely a story. Yet like her grandmother, Mhlope knows this much: telling a good story is difficult in itself, and something even highly sophisticated playwrights often fail to accomplish.