Sizwe Banzi Is Dead
By Belinda Otas
A work of collaboration between Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead had its first performance in 1972. Thirty-five years on and directed by Aubrey Sekhabi, it takes you back to the old South Africa and sits you right in the heat of apartheid.
It starts off with an unusual but engaging monologue by John Kani in the role of Styles, a photographer who takes delight in recording the stories of his people and makes them happy even if it is for a day.
Styles decision to open a photographic studio was because of his experience working at a car factory. He searched himself and asked questions about his life. “Is that it, is that what my life is about. Nothing but a white man’s boy,” reiterating the deep rooted issues of racism and segregation of the apartheird era in the old South Africa.
Kani’s ability to deliver Styles’ candid monologue with humour, sarcasm, brilliance and sadness and of course, Kani’s unforgettable laughter commands the attention of the audience. His energy on stage and use of space, running from one end to the other to tell Styles story and interacting with the audience, makes you want more.
It goes without saying that Kani’s ability to be animated in his multiple roles within this monologue, first as the boss of the factory (Mr Bass), the interpreter and as one of the workers reminds you that he is a formidable actor. Styles photographic studio in the play is symbolic of a man’s desire to be his own boss and it is a strong room of dreams. The dreams of his people; those who will never be known, it is about preserving their history.
However, the arrival of Robert Zelinzima (Winston Ntshona) at Styles studio soon turns the tide of the story. From here on, the audience is allowed to experience the division and inequality that existed in the old South Africa between whites and blacks. Where a man’s ability to work, care for his family and survive was dependant on a pass book.
Robert’s passbook prohibits him to remain in Port Elizabeth where the play is set. His dreams of caring for his family calls into question, everything he believes in, especially his identity. Port Elizabeth is the place where the number of a man’s passbook is more important than his name and the colour of his skin is trouble. It also questions the value of a name when it is of no use to you.
Kani once again shines in the role of Robert’s mentor in the second half; a man who has learnt to survive in difficult circumstances. Robert has to give up his name and identity to take on that of a dead man in order to remain in Port Elizabeth and work. He is no longer Sizwe Banzi as soon as he takes on the identity of a corpse and just like the dead man, Sizwe Banzi is dead.
Winston Ntshona, regarded as one of South Africa’s finest and most distinguished actors alongside Kani revive this classic whose similarities to life today in the new South Africa is not very far off.
Sizwe Banzi Is Dead is now showing at the National Theatre from 19 March to 4 April.
For more information: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Tel: 0207 452 3000
Belinda Otas is a London-based freelance journalist and The New Black Magazine's theatre critic.
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