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  • Writer's pictureBulelwa Mthombothi

Ground Zero //0 (or to die) by Gavin Matthys

Ground Zero //0 (or to die) was staged at Wits University Theatre, but not inside the building, rather it found its home for the next hour, just outside the Wits Art Gallery. With the blur of the wind, the intimate group making up the audience sat under the hidden stars of the Joburg night, with a forecast that promised rain, to watch a tale of an identity shaped by violence, ensue. Written and Directed by Gavin Matthys in collaboration with the cast, made up of four actors namely: Tshegofatso Molaolwa; Sibabalwe Dyaphu; Cresswell Asante, Ompha Monica Khangale, Zukhanye Bulali Mgobo.

The play, which was told through dance, narration, sound and a video installation, a compound of elements to enhance the story, was captivating from the moment we heard the first beat of the drums played by Itebogeng Machobane and Thabiso Motaung. The drums which continued throughout the performance, drums making up what felt like a soundtrack, their pace and volume quickening or slowing down as the story unfolded, yielding at some points and pouncing at others. Sound played an important role in the unfolding of our exploration, we were taken on an expedition of history and how it comes to define the present. Sound was a tool of time, a conduit of the expression of eras, distinctive sounds blasted from the speakers bringing the whole piece together. Not only was sound important but so too were the visuals projected onto a wall, a little box on the wall, carrying a staircase that itself was a part of scenes performed by an exhilarating cast. The lighting was used - as any audience

member would agree – to not only illuminate the scenes but to amplify what we were seeing as well. It formed a very important part in the way the story was told, I was impressed by the seamlessness with which it was administered. There was a beautiful moment when light was used to cast a shadow, and the sheer greatness in size of the shadow of the young actress as she used her body to convey the sadness with which colonialism disfigured the lives of the Khoi.

It was sorrowful if not devastating with moments of unencumbered happiness,

utilising time and the faces of coloured culture throughout it, to illuminate the

importance of roots and how defining they are not just to the history of a people but to history of self. We cannot and do not exist in a vacuum, which means what has happened, what is happening and will happen all converge at the being. Who are they? That is why the trauma inflicted on the ancestors of coloured people is displayed in the way they relate to each other and the world. It is a tale of life, fragmented, sometimes confusing but always happening. A truth conveyed by a scene where each actor was in different spot all speaking at once, confused yet transfixed the audience darting back and forth. So impeccably timed was that – a feat of great writing and directing - that we caught everything albeit in accelerated succession, heads darting back and forth, truly a stand out moment.

Colonisation; a legacy of hate that has come to define this enormous continent,

through its violence and subjugation. Colonialism; not the beginning of our stories as Africans but because of its enforced assimilation made sure self is lost and at most subverted to introduce these foreigners and their Bibles. The play is an exploration of what it means to be coloured, to be a descendant of a people who have suffered war, genocide and slavery. What does that violence do to a people? What has it stolen and how do you begin to piece together an identity when it is so drenched in pain and bloodshed? An identity that some do not believe to be wholly African as its descendants are a mixture of many different cultures and races, a people whose legacy of language has been robbed. The languages used were Afrikaans and English. Afrikaans a language derived from what we know as coloured people, its inclusion is a testament to that fact that Afrikaans is a coloured language and therefore an African language. And just as coloured people it has roots both in Africa and Europe. A salient part in the play that speaks to the violence and trauma of assimilation is when one of the actors beats the wall with a rope, the sound imitating that of a whip lacerating human flesh, as another bellows Psalm 23, in a tone trembling and drenched in tears. An exhibition of the entrenchment of pain with which the other came and Othered us, well in the case of Ground Zero specifically Othered people of mixed heritage, who came to be known as coloured. Towards the end of the play the actors ask this question continuously; “What is your name? Are you from the land or are you from the sea? Who are you from?”

Once the settlers arrive on the boat it is not too long before the theme of violence is entrenched. From then, the four actors display the violence as it sets foot on the shore to when that violence becomes a choice for children. As we all should know gun violence has become endemic to the Cape Flats that children have had to choose between gang membership or going to school and sometimes or most times that choice has already been made for them. Eerily we see the manifestation of how joy and salvation can exist within the pain, traipsing heartily through the culture. Guns shots heard during a display of Klopse; itself a practice that derives from the conditions of slavery, kids playing in the streets but always with the tinge of distress and violence waiting to emerge out of the light of the magenta sunset into the dark of the night, flagged by death. “The land is your but the blood is ours.” – these words speaking to the violence of the past and that of the present. The duplicity of the effects of History, it’s pain travels through decades and settles in the marrow of a cultural practice that also brings joy.

The Foreword of the play mentions how (generational) trauma is embodied in our being, more so when that violence ensconces your culture and identity. To what becomes the young child who knows nothing about their history and therefore knows not why their being is enveloped in so much violence? How do you make a better decision when you have no clue as to why you must decide in the first place? Without giving anything away I think this play was made to not only interrogate violence and trauma but to validate the need to shout out stories of origin in South Africa. To bring history to life in art, the deep extent of the pain cannot be discounted but confronting it is an essential part of cementing self in the world. Kudos to the director for utilising not only the space but using lighting to elevate the understanding, illuminating and enlarging what needed to be. It was a little distressing to look over in many different directions as the brilliant actors moved around the spaces and at times darting the audience’s attention into two different scenes all at one. Showing the multiplicity of time, that life is both a series of domino effects and that lives are constantly happening, as the present becomes history there are real people living and breathing not knowing their lives will one day result in a tapestry of broken dreams. I enjoyed the play and thought it was beautifully staged, a work of compassionate art that could only be told by someone who truly loves the people they are speaking of and to.

images sourced from Instagram @reaapunzell

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