All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Sizwe Banzi is Dead — McCarter Theatre Company

untitled (9)“Sizwe Banzi is Dead” is genuine work of theater.

And an authentic, authoritative look at a shameful period of South African history that skillfully camouflages the importance of the indignities it exposes by keeping its characters and overall tone amiable and congenial.

Two related stories are told, almost in shaggy-dog style. They entertain on their surface, but within the mostly lighthearted dialogue, where motives and ambitions are included almost incidentally, authors John Kani, Winston Ntshona, and Athol Fugard searingly tell you the unimaginable hardships blacks faced under the subjugating, segregationist policies of Apartheid. Two men, Sizwe Banzi and a photographer named Styles each find their way to something they can call manhood in “Sizwe Banzi is Dead,” but it is the reasons and repercussions of their journeys in rejecting the label of “boy” the ruling class would cast on them that make “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” so poignant and a classic work chronicling the 20th century South African experience.

The play itself is a gem, but the production directed by John Kani at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre shows how amusement, enlightenment, anger, and unconscionable history can fuse in one work. Written more than 40 years ago, and revived more than 20 years after the fall of Apartheid, Kani’s work with Ntshona and Fugard is fresh and meaningful. In addition to the buoyant script that has you laughing with a lump in your throat when your realize how much the authors couch in personality and humor, Kani’s staging features a remarkable performance by his son, Atandwa Kani, who acts the raconteur but brings out every nuance of pain and rebellion masked within the sunny ebullience of Styles and the sincere wisdom of another character, the raisonneur of “Sizwe Banzi is Dead,” the revolutionarily pragmatic Buntu. Mncedisi Shabangu is equally effective as the benighted villager, Sizwe Banzi, who must be instructed by Buntu in how to defeat mandated perfidy so he can survive not only on his own, but as a man who won’t have to live apart from his wife and can bring her and their children to the city where Buntu’s scheme will allow him to work and thrive. Relatively, of course.

Like many plays by Athol Fugard, ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead” puts human faces on Apartheid and clearly depicts the dread with which people lived while illustrating how men like Styles and Buntu found a measure of individuality and independence by living within the system but on their own terms. Always with the threat of humiliation, imprisonment, or beating lurking as a penalty for their audacity or just as a way of life.

“Sizwe Banzi is Dead” centers on identity but is more about the struggle, personal and communal, for any human to say, “I live this one life as an individual, and no matter how government or Realpolitik attempts to cow me, I will strive to defeat my oppressor and say proudly, ‘I am a man.'”

“I am a man” is what Styles victoriously declares when he takes a step that might seem modest but is brave and forthright, the self-actuating equivalent of throwing a rock, protesting Apartheid, and joining with Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, neither of which is mentioned in “Sizwe Banzi is Dead,” which was first performed 18 years before Mandela’s release from Robbin Island, but which loom in its authors’ and most active characters’ consciousness.

Buntu, though not as forceful as Styles, had also learned to assert himself and claim an individual place in the untenable world In which he lives. He is the one who influences Sizwe Banzi, the one who passes on his own way of defeating authorities to another man who has children to whom he can pass on Buntu’s form of resistance.

The wonderful thing about Kani’s production is not only that the joy of Styles, the resourcefulness of Buntu, and the confusion of Sizwe Banzi is overt. “Sizwe Banzi” is a genuine work of theater because it uses all at its disposal to make its stories and their overarching meaning come alive by using the simplest means of storytelling, mimicry, and physicality to relay a complex, complicated tale of survival that is also a form of resistance and personal victory. Atandwa Kani’s long introductory monologue as Styles is practically vaudevillian in approach — Kani must do so many things to entertain. — yet it has an emotional wallop. As Styles speaks, you understand what he has defeated to have the little independence he can muster. You realize the risks he takes on a daily basis and how he’s come to cope with reality by bending to rules and conventions when necessary, such as being deferent to white people and the police,  while basking in the pride of someone who dared to say, “I am,” and then, “I am a man,” and accomplished his individually important aims. Mncedisi Shabangu embodies the more frightened, more docile, more rule-following Sizwe Banzi, a man who had to be convinced by Buntu to take his place as the best he can be and who comes to Styles as a man of distinction that Styles endows with his own sense of joy in being, to the greatest extent he can under the circumstances, his own person.

“Sizwe Banzi is Dead” was performed without a script when John Kani and Winston Ntshona played it to international acclaim in the early 1970s. Kani, in an interview I did with him for US 1, a version of which will appear soon in NealsPaper, says the co-authors could not commit the text to writing because in the days before easy copying and recording, South African authorities used the script as evidence that a work was subversive or incendiary. “As long as we produced nothing in writing, our play could not be banned, and Winston Ntshona and I could not be arrested. The authorities responded by demanding the theaters where ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead’ appeared be closed and fined. That was painful, but the penalty only lasted for one night — Again because of being able to present no proof of what happened. — and frankly, the closings were good publicity for us. If the authorities chose to still a voice or close down a performance, people surmised there must be value in it and lined up for tickets.”

Kani says he and Ntshona improvised a lot while “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” played its initial run in Johannesberg. The playfulness of actors creating and performing together is evident even with a new generation of Kani and Shabangu in the lead roles. (Kani and Ntshona jointly received the 1975 Tony for Best Actor in a Play for “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” and a companion piece, “The Island.” The plays were nominated for all of the major theater awards that year, although most of the awards were given to Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” another worthy work.)

In directing “Sizwe Banzi is Dead,” Kani was able to give great rein to Atandwa Kani and Shabangu who show a lot of confidence and a resolve to entertain.

Atandwa Kani is on stage alone for the first 20 minutes or so of “Sizwe Banzi is Dead.” He uses the time to grandly tell you the life story of Styles, a man who had a secure job with the Ford factory in Port Elizabeth, near the black enclave where he, Buntu, and Banzi live, but who gave up his post to open his own business as a photographer.

Opening a business might not signify much to people who live in freedom and in lands of opportunity. For Styles, the act was remarkable. It meant that for most of every day, he would be his own boss. This, is a country where black men had to refer to almost every white resident as “boss.” Styles was in command of his day and his economic fate. He was the master of his own fortune, an unheard of circumstance for most of the blacks in South Africa during Apartheid.

Kani immediately lets you see the spirit that gave him the confidence to attempt a greater level of independence that most of his black countrymen could ever realize. He also lets you see Styles’s intellect and a knack for seeing through any situation to its truth. Styles is possibly the most potent kind of rebel, a man who plays by the rules while, in spirit, fleering at them.

Kani is particularly entertaining as Styles describes the visit of Henry Ford II to the Port Elizabeth plant and how entertained he was at the way his supervisors at the factory cowed and fawned, in the same way he and his co-workers must on a minute-by-minute basis, as they sweated through the relatively few minutes they were hosts to Mr. Ford.

Kani has a Chaplin-like talent for acting out the various jobs on the Ford assembly line. He clearly, but vividly, describes the daily monotony of the factory and the subservience he was required to show to the powers that be, bosses who could fire him or dock his pay with no explanation anyone worth appealing to would agree to listen to anyhow. Styles also talks frankly about the security a black South African felt at having a relatively good, stable, and even lucrative position. This underscores the courage it took for him to leave Ford and establish a business of his own. In showing how Styles practiced getting on the good side of his supervisor. Kani is cunning in looking as if he is doing a “boss’s” bidding while he is actually showing the boss how a task is done.

Talented, useful, or not, a black man in South Africa before 1990 was subject to disrespect and dismissal for their own sake. Styles, as he passes age 30, becomes irritated at being called a “boy,” at times by supervisors younger and less competent than he. The character talks about spending his weekends as an amateur photographer who is, at times, asked by people to do photographic portraits of them. It dawns on him that, against convention and perhaps common sense, he could chuck Ford and strike out on his own with a photography studio,.

As I’ve said, Styles’s move bordered on the revolutionary. But he takes the step. Hearing Kani relate Styles’s journey is a joy. You share in everything he feels, positive and negative (no photography pun intended). You also delight as he delights in telling his tale with humor, a broad smile beaming from the character’s face for most of the time.

Kani shows you theater at work. Styles takes a brief time to tell his story, but in “Sizwe Banzi is Dead,” this sketch conveys volumes and covers extensive ground.

Once we know Styles is established as a merchant who, at times, prefers to close his doors, smoke a cigarette, and read a magazine to working, Kani takes on a different role, that of the more disgruntled but equally observant and self-preserving Buntu, a man who works in a textile factory in the same type of position as Styles held for Ford. Buntu sees himself as a wage-earner whose only interest in white South Africa is how much money is in his pay packet each Friday. Otherwise, he tries to have the best life he can by going about his business and stopping into the local shabeen for a beer or Scotch.

Buntu is asked to come the aid of Sizwe Banzi, a man from the mandated black townships who had the bad luck to have his identity book examined by an official and stamped with a mark that prevents Sizwe from living in or working in the city of Port Elizabeth.

Sizwe cannot survive without a job with which he can support his family in the black townships. By the time he meets Buntu, his quandary has vastly escalated. He was supposed to be out of Port Elizabeth the day earlier. If caught in the city’s boundaries, Sizwe is liable for further sanctions and probably arrest and incarceration.

Buntu does not have a lot of choices. He knows there are positions open at the textile factory, but he can’t in good conscience recommend a man whose passbook is out of order, a grand sin among the potentates who govern South Africa and a blot his employers would never tolerate.

Buntu does solve Sizwe’s problem, but the way he does it, which owes more than a little to one patch of good luck, is as harrowing as it is uplifting. His plan illustrates the worst of what a black man in South Africa must do to make something good and worthwhile happen.

Once again, Atandwa Kani is superb in his role. He shows you every bit of Buntu’s thoughtfulness and apprehension. You see the man’s brain working while he wrestles with his higher morals about how to handle a situation that presents itself to Sizwe’s benefit but means the degrading of another human.

The audience sees the price of pragmatism, even in a good cause, and how doing the necessary weighs on the man who knows he has to take the extreme course because a logical or reasonable course is closed to him. And all who share his complexion. That includes Sizwe Banzi who doesn’t have Buntu’s guile or sense of pouncing on a rare, if unsavory, advantage.

Styles returns when, in keeping with Buntu’s plan, Sizwe Banzi, dressed in a new suit from the tailor that clothes all of black Port Elizabeth by granting people six months to pay for their garments, and sporting a pipe and a smile at broad as the Cape of Good Hope, goes to the photographer to have some official portraits taken. Kani and Shabangu have a wonderful time acting out the photographer’s attempts to get the already happy, but unsophisticaed Sizwe to dispense with the troubles he may have and enjoy the good fortune that allows him to have a sparkling new suit and a wonderful reason for needing the service of a photographer.

“Sizwe Banzi is Dead” is always upbeat, and never more than when Styles encourages Banzi to strut like a soldier on parade so he can capture him at the peak of pride. Yet, even at this most celebratory of moments, the journey that leads Sizwe Banzi to point of victory remains bittersweet in a way in which the audience is all too aware.

That’s the secret of John Kani’s production. For all the humor and progress made in “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” the specter of Apartheid and the machinations Styles, Buntu, and now Banzi have to negotiate to defeat its humiliations never totally subside. We are always conscious of it. So, joy and good feeling tends to reign on the McCarter stage, but in our minds, the ugliness of Apartheid is never dispelled. Think of the magic it takes to present a high spirited entertaining show, filled with jokes and playfulness, while never letting the monster that so thoroughly threatens his characters hide totally. John Kani has accomplished that magic, and Atandwa Kani and Mncedisi Shabangu share the glory of this rare theatrical accomplishment with him as do Winston Ntshona and Athold Fugard, both alive and working, as Kani is.

Atandwa Kani is so amazing, I’ve become lax in praising Mncedisi Shabangu, whose close partnership and prodigious talent is necessary if “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” is to be presented in all of its fullness.

Shabangu meticulously catches and conveys the many moods of Sizwe Banzi. He is confused and desperate when he meet him, at which time Shabangu marries Sizwe’s anxiety with a tender sweetness we hope will convince Buntu to help him.

Sizwe is a good man who has to be encouraged to take the steps that will make him a more secure man, one who can support his family without help from other sources. Shabangu clings to that goodness even when Buntu makes it clear Sizwe’s innocence will have to be surrendered if he is to have anything but the most meager and miserable of lives.

Sizwe has much more at stake than Buntu. His actions can jeopardize his freedom, a condition of life in South Africa but more pronounced for Sizwe because of the exiling stamp in his passbook. Shabangu has to play many moods, from naïve to moral, from fearful to persuaded, from servile to proud. He is adroit at realizing all of them and particularly touching when you hear him composing a letter to his wife in the townships, a letter that is all the more moving because it can never be written. Sizwe Banzi is illiterate, another problem Buntu and Styles are willing to confront.

Shabangu’s composing of Sizwe’s letters mark the few instances in which John Kani allows his production to become sentimental. At other times, the horror has to be read through joy or élan of the immediate action. Shabangu finds the many moods of Sizwe, the lowest of which makes it all the more gratifying when Sizwe walks with swagger towards Styles and the picture that will be his emblem for the rest of his life.

John Kani, who served as set and costume designer, kept his production simple and let his son’s and Shabangu’s acting do the work. The set has rudimentary pieces needed to roughly establish place and give an idea of the conditions in which black South Africans lived, clean and orderly but in dwellings that are old, poorly built, and in need of repair.

Styles looks handsome is his white coat. Sizwe also appears in a white suit that indicates he got the job at the textile plant, was able to buy clothes on credit, and was bringing his family to Port Elizabeth.

The McCarter staging is a sterling production that provides the great advantage to see a fabled man of the theater, John Kani, bring one of his plays to life with the vibrancy and poignancy that has always graced “Sizwe Banzi is Dead.” In my interview with Kani, you’ll read about his ordeal of passing his script to a new generation. He should be happy about the care, energy, and depth with which the younger generation accepted that torch.

“Sizwe Banzi is Dead” runs through Sunday, February 15, at the Berlind Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Company, University Place and College Road, in Princeton, N.J. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. No performance is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 3. Tickets range from $92.50 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 609-258-ARTS (609-258-2787) or by visiting


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