Coming Home

by Athol Fugard
directed by Blanka Zizka
October 14, 2009November 15, 2009

Young Cherry Hill Actor Embraces Challenges of “Coming Home”

The voice is husky and the manner just a tad shy. Antonio Jae-yon Dandridge, who is turning 11 on Halloween, is not yet accustomed to press interviews, but a few minutes with him and one senses that this media innocence won't last long.

The charming and articulate sixth grader at Cherry Hill's Beck Middle School landed a role in the Wilma Theater's production of Athol Fugard's "Coming Home," and it was no small feat.

Blanka Zizka, The Wilma's co-artistic director and director of "Coming Home," had launched an exhaustive search for the right child to play a pivotal role in the play, and her search ended with Antonio.

"Antonio was able to reach emotions that few children of this age can," says Zizka. "Lots of children can play "make believe' and pretend, but it's rare for a child to be completely persuasive in reaching the emotional depths that "Coming Home' requires."

"I was really excited to be chosen," confides the honor student who learned at a call-back after a second audition that he'd nailed the role of Mannetjie, the son of the play's central character, a beleaguered South African mother. "I have to really become my character, and now I've learned how to do that."

Antonio's mom, Jamille Horne, who has herself performed both in college and through her church, has watched her son demonstrate his comfort with performing, and his passion for it, since he began performing at church at age 5.

The Bethany Baptist Church has been an early venue, and his young life has been punctuated by school plays and dance performances with Dance Sensations of New Jersey.

"I love to dance -- I love hip-hop and I'm never nervous when I have an audience," beams Antonio, who also made the All-Cherry Hill Band as a saxophone player. Modeling also appears on the young actor/dancer's resume.

But even Antonio knows he's into a new league with the Equity Wilma Theater.

"I've learned a whole lot from the director. She taught me how to really understand my character and to forget who I am and become him when I'm performing."

Mannetjie, as it turns out, has not has an easy life, and needs to deal with issues such as AIDS and a troubled domestic situation.

"So I had to feel his pain and make it mine."

That's no small insight for an 11-year-old actor.

Rehearsals were long, frequent and demanding, but only once did this young actor yield to frustration.

"I thought I was doing a good job, but they told me I had to improve. That made me feel real bad, but I went home and cried. But I tried even harder after that, and it worked!"

Because he is on stage through some of Act II and most of Act III, Antonio also has to cram his homework from his classes in humanities, Spanish, language arts, math and science into a very compressed time frame.

And then there was the question of accent. "I talk like an American kid, but my character is South African," explains the youngster who initially learned all his lines, and then had to readjust saying them with the correct dialect after working with a language coach. "It was really like learning a whole new language," he says proudly.

Young Antonio is being exposed to the work of a master playwright. Fugard, who has been called "the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world" by Time Magazine, has also seen his works produced frequently at the Wilma, and enjoys a productive relationship with Blanka Zizka.

"I fell in love with Blanka's vision for her theater," Fugard, now 76, has said. "Her understanding that good theater has to educate and entertain the minds and hearts of her audience is exactly what I strive for in my writing."

Antonio Dandridge is getting an early view of that gift, and he hasn't missed the message. "I think people will feel very sad -- and also very good -- from this play," he says.

"I knew some things before I started -- like I can stand on my head and I can talk really loud when I have to do a report for my class. But now," says Antonio, "I also know how to be in a very special play. I'm having a really good time -- and I'm not a bit scared to go out there and do my part."