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Passion play

Branching out into the performing arts proved surprisingly tricky for South African novelist Beverley Naidoo. But a journey to the land of her birth helped her reconnect with her child characters, who take to the stage in London this month

Come with the passion of your heart!" Four years ago, the Performing Arts Labs charity invited me to join one of its unique 10-day "labs" (intensive courses) at Bore Place, deep in the Kent countryside. PAL encourages professional writers to explore new territory and to learn by experiment and practice. My invitation was to experience theatre writing for younger audiences.

The PAL team included two playwright mentors, two theatre directors, six actors, a bevy of visiting theatre practitioners - and a superb chef. A fairy godmother couldn't have offered a better present. We were 10 writers.

Most had written stage and screen scripts, but not for children; I had written fiction for young people, but never a play. The year 2000 was especially busy - I had recently won the Carnegie Medal for my novel The Other Side of Truth - and time was short.

Instead of developing an idea from scratch, I decided to adapt a short story, "The Playground", from my collection Out of Bounds, hoping to learn a lot by shifting the story across media. Set in 1995, just after South Africa's first democratic elections, "The Playground" is about 11-year-old Rosa, the first black girl to enter an all-white school, where parents still hope to resist integration. Its themes of power, exclusion, the choices available to young people and the courage required to cross boundaries not only resonate in Britain but lie at the core of much of my work. They could indeed be described as "a passion of my heart".

I did not want to arrive empty-handed, so, a week before the course, I sat down to work on my first scenes. I have been a theatre-goer since childhood. My parents wrote plays for South African radio and stage and my mother was a theatre critic. Surely I had imbibed something about writing plays?

The best learning environments are characterised by generosity of spirit.

Thank goodness our lab provided it in abundance, as each of us faced our own particular creative challenge. As a text-based novelist, I was aware that I needed to expand my notion of text. We started with a session on the "language of theatre", followed by a wonderful workshop on the use of mask.

I could hear what people were saying. I thought I understood. In an individual session with the actors, they tried out my script, asked me questions and improvised. I watched, listened, discussed.

Again, I thought I understood. Yet when I sat down to write - and rewrite - something wasn't working. I recall the feeling of being under a large glass jar that allowed me to see and hear everything but not quite touch. Years ago I taught young people who were intelligent, but had severe reading difficulties. Had some of them experienced a similar kind of puzzlement? I began to wonder if perhaps I should think of the lab as a great experience but stick to prose.

A simple comment from artistic director John Retallack lifted the invisible trap. It was almost embarrassing that I hadn't realised the problem myself.

"You're still thinking like a novelist," he said, looking at my stage directions. He was right. As I visualised each scene, I had retained the realistic film I was used to playing out in my head. I had to liberate myself. If I was to explore the transforming power of actors on a bare stage, I had to start from somewhere else.

We discussed my characters. There was no shortage of dramatic tension. Rosa begs her mother to be like the other black parents who have decided to "wait and see" before sending their children to the white Oranje school.

But Mama is adamant. "Someone has to be first."

Mama has worked for the white Van Niekerk family since Hennie was a baby.

nie attends Oranje school and its facilities far exceed those of Rosa's overcrowded, under-resourced school in the township. Hennie's father is also adamant: black children will bring down the school. Rosa and Hennie each inherit a legacy of parental expectations.

I began to unleash my characters in dialogues that explored dramatic inner conflicts. I stopped worrying about the order of scenes or my plot. That would come later. I also developed my sense of the spaces between words, of what was left unsaid, of what an actor could convey in a glance or a movement. I began to play with dramatic conventions. I found myself working with a new, excited energy.

Soon, I was moving beyond the confines of my short story, digging deeper and making discoveries. My characters were taking on a new life. When the actors presented our work on the final evening, John had directed my scenes in a sharp, rather Brechtian style. I was hooked. I returned home and pushed all other deadlines away to complete my play.

In a pleasing twist of fate, I was approached shortly afterwards by Vicky Ireland, then director of the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, south London.

Polka was starting a programme to support new writing and to widen the age range and diversity of its audiences. Would I be interested in writing a play for young people about Nelson Mandela? I explained that I had a first draft of a play in which he was a considerable presence, if not a character. The commission came quickly. But I had other commitments, including writing Web of Lies, my sequel to The Other Side of Truth.

Polka's dramaturge and director of its new writing initiative, Richard Shannon, kept in touch. Theatre director Olusola Oyeleye was asked if she would direct. Finally, two-and-a-half years later, I was free again to work on the play. I decided the best way of reconnecting would be to go to South Africa, and was delighted when Olusola offered to join me and the Arts Council agreed to fund our expenses.

Ten years ago, we had gone there together to run drama and writing workshops before the first democratic elections. Our focus then had been street children, who were to be at the heart of my subsequent novel, No Turning Back. It seemed appropriate that we should now be going to explore a story arising out of post-apartheid legislation affecting children: the removal of discrimination in school admissions.

Before Olusola arrived, I visited a conservative rural town in North West Province where the white community is largely Afrikaans-speaking. This is an area I got to know as a city child from Jo'burg and those memories have often served as a trigger for my imagination. A writer friend, Maren Bodenstein, and a community facilitator, Kgomotso Ramosepele, contacted three schools with various constituencies and geographies that revealed the legacy of segregation. I wanted to explore friendship and how we choose our friends.

In each school, I began by reading an edited extract from my story where Hennie's father stops his five-year-old son playing with Rosa. To minimise preconceptions, I had removed any reference to Rosa and Hennie's colour and background. It worked. Children in all three schools initially attributed the father's behaviour to Rosa being a girl. But as I read the unedited extract, I heard the sounds of recognition.

Formerly all white, the town's English-speaking primary school, Fields College, now has a small minority of black children. We worked in the spacious hall. Here I caught the eyes of a black girl lighting up as she finally realised Rosa was black. Afterwards, in a writing activity focused on Rosa's voice, she took a lead role in her otherwise white group. "I won't give in. I won't run away. It is my right to come to this school." I could see and feel her confidence - and adrenalin - as she willed Rosa to succeed.

Motsukubyane middle school, an English-medium school, lies off a bumpy road out of town and serves a rural black Setswana-speaking community. We arrived after school, but a small group of curious, lively teenagers had stayed behind. We held our session outside in the shade of a tree. I asked them to teach me some childhood games that Rosa might play.

Later we discussed possible attitudes to Rosa after her mother sends her to Oranje school. Taunts from her own community of "whitey" and "coconut" (white on the inside) would pile the pressure on her. They saw her caught between two communities - a pioneer on a bridge. These young people were wonderful in creating impromptu dialogues and revealed the kind of talent that cries out to be nurtured in the democratic South Africa.

That evening I met a young man who had been one of the first black students to attend the town's only English-speaking white state high school - also a boarding school - more than 10 years ago. Thalepo Peele's account sounded like something from Tom Brown's Schooldays, with racism thrown in for good measure.

Part of the new students' initiation had been for boys to dress up as girls (and vice-versa), parade down the main street and spend the day talking to the statue of the Boer hero Paul Kruger - "Oom Paul" - in the centre of town. The "matrics" (older students) ruled the roost and any bucking warranted "the beating of a lifetime" at night. This young man called himself a survivor.

Vastrap la rskool, an Afrikaans-speaking primary, has its own grounds in town. While Nelson Mandela smiled down at us from a poster on the library wall, all the children I saw here were white. They were curious and readily engaged, speaking in a mixture of English and Afrikaans with Maren translating when I lost track. I was impressed how, after they realised that Rosa was black, they continued to uncover layers of perceptions. They were revealing some of their own dilemmas as well as those of my character Hennie.

There was a resounding feeling that adults influence children's choices.

One girl spoke of her mother's "eye test". A child who didn't look her mother in the eye was not to be trusted. An animated discussion followed about the validity of adult judgments. Afrikaner society still maintains strong respect for authority. You might think your parents are wrong. But what if they are right?

Later, at a ceremony in Maren's small rural town, I watched children from the tiny Afrikaans-speaking school receive prizes for loyalty, co-operation, friendliness, responsibility, diligence, endurance and obedience, as well as general progress, cross-country running and neatness.

Even parents received certificates for contributing to school and community. A solitary black family sat in front of me. I imagined my Rosa and her mother in this school hall, and the inner resources they would need for this journey into new territory.

The following week Olusola led an inspiring six-day workshop with young black adults from marginalised communities in Cape Town. Most had completed the Community Arts Project's performing arts course, while two worked at Project Phakama, which encourages young people to use drama to explore their lives and connect with others. My story resonated. One participant said this was her story, as the first black child to enter a white school.

After Mandela's government was elected, she was the only child in assembly who knew how to sing the new national anthem, "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika".

These young people also dramatised the pressures of Rosa returning to what they called "the ghetto".

I returned to England to develop my script with a wealth of images and ideas. A workshop with actors in London, and feedback from director and dramaturge have encouraged me to visualise the play "on its feet". What a collaborative enterprise this is, compared with the long solitary stretches spent writing a novel. Meeting the challenge has been spurred on by the play's themes.

Miracles can happen: Thabo Twetwa, from our Cape Town workshop, has been sponsored to join the cast. All of us involved in the play - including the audience - are asked to share a vision of Rosa and Hennie's hopes and fears. The questions raised about crossing boundaries are universal. I trust the power of theatre will convey this "passion of my heart" to young and old.

The Playground by Beverley Naidoo is at the Polka Theatre, Wimbledon, September 23-October 30. Bookings and schools programme details on 020 8543 4888. The original story is published in Out of Bounds: stories of conflict and hope (Puffin). Chain of Fire and Beverley Naidoo's latest novel, Web of Lies, are published by Puffin this month

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