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SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD (article first published : 2006-10-1)

The Witness Hilton Arts Festival scored a coup in attracting this revival of one of South Africa's most famous pieces of theatre to round off last weekend's successful event. It was back in 1972 that playwright Athol Fugard workshopped Sizwe Banzi is Dead with his two actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, and earlier this year the pair of them decided to revive it for the 30th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, with Aubrey Sekhabi as director. It is 31 years since they both won Tony Awards on Broadway for their performances.

The play, which tells the story of Sizwe Banzi who comes to Port Elizabeth from Kingwilliamstown to look for work, only to be "endorsed out" as he does not have the right permit in his passbook, is an iconic work, turning the spotlight on the pass laws and apartheid bureaucracy. I nearly wrote "dehumanising" results, but one of the triumphs of Fugard's work is to show the full humanity of the characters.

From the moment Kani comes on stage to deliver his famous monologue as Styles, the township photographer, a world is created. He reads his paper and comments on strikes, domestic violence, Beyers Naude and more. The audience can visualise Henry Ford's visit to the Ford factory in Port Elizabeth, the white bosses making the place look like one big, newly spruced up happy family for the great man who scarcely looks around, or they can see him photographing locals, providing them with images for their family albums, a chance to still own a little piece of themselves in a hostile environment. It is hard to remember that both actors are in their sixties when you see the energy Kani brings to his role. He has his audience completely absorbed into his world before Ntshona makes his entrance, wanting to be photographed for his wife back home.

The rest of the play is the story of how he changed himself from Sizwe Banzi to Robert Zwelinzima, a man with a fancy white suit from Sales House and a pass allowing him to work in the city. Now, thirty-something years on, Sizwe Banzi is Dead is an endorsement of both how far we have come and how recent and all-pervasive is the past it depicts. Most of the audience for the first performance on Tuesday had not been born 30 years ago, and judging by their reactions, they were transfixed by seeing two of the country's finest performers in one of its classic plays, still moving and powerful. And it is a reminder that the best protest theatre has a life long after the conditions it grew out of have mercifully gone. - Margaret von Klemperer




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