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DEATH OF NATHI KUNENE (article first published : 2002-04-23)

Two weeks before his death, Nathi was rehearsing his role of Benedict Matiwane in Kwasuka Theatre’s revival of its school touring production, “Shades of Marguerite Poland”. He died on the day of the first performance.

“From the moment he arrived for the first rehearsal, I could see that he was in no fit state to cope with the stresses of rehearsals as the role of Benedict requires much power, anger and physical strength,” says director Caroline Smart. “Patrick Collyer and I constructed the play around him as its central character and he brought to the part his usual passionate and impressive performance.

“People in the theatre world are wonderful when one of their colleagues are in trouble. During the first week of rehearsal, I watched Stacey Taylor – another member of the first cast – loyally trying to compensate for Nathi’s lack of energy and fragility by doubling her own intensity, trying to carry him along with her. That’s the true spirit of show business.

“Just a week ago, we had to persuade Nathi to let his understudy Edwin Khumalo take over. I think it made it easier for him to step down, knowing that such a highly competent actor was to take his role.

“The Durban theatre world is the poorer for Nathi’s passing. He had so much to offer, such strength and vigour … and so many ideas and creative projects still to fulfil.”

It's never easy for an understudy to take over, particularly in circumstances such as these. "He was a brilliant actor and it was very hard to get into his shoes," says Edwin Khumalo. "At first, when I heard that I was going to take over his character, I felt like I was stealing the part because of his illness. But I understood that he was too ill to perform. I dedicate the rest of my performances to him. May his soul rest in peace."

Close friend Jerry Pooe had worked with Nathi for about ten years since Jerry had directed him in Harold Fugard’s “Nongogo” for the Playhouse Company. “He was a brilliant actor and knew how to work with people. He was very strong about his illness and kept on saying he was going to be fine. He even drove my actors to the battlefield when I was doing a re-enactment of the Battle of Isandlwana. He said that sometimes in life you need to accept things. He had accepted that he was sick and was not blaming God.”

Jerry’s company Eager Artists had commissioned Nathi to write and direct a children’s play called “Skhedeskhebe and the Naughty Kids”. “This was due to run in March but he became too ill to cope,” says Jerry. “The production is ready and waiting and I will produce it in his memory as soon as I can.”

Arrangements are being made to hold a memorial service.




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