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Theater Review (NYC): Sizwe Banzi is Dead

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This production is as much an event as it is a play. After a 35-year relationship, its two actors, who wrote the play in collaboration with Athol Fugard, have brought this production to BAM for their final performances. After April 19, Sizwe Banzi will go on, as it has done all over the world, but without John Kani and Winston Ntshona. They are saying goodbye to the cherished friend that saved their lives and changed the world.

Kani and Ntshona were part of a group of black South African actors who founded The Serpent Players in 1961. They heard of a playwright, Athol Fugard, who was writing anti-Apartheid plays. Fugard’s early play Blood Knot was cause for his passport to be revoked. The Serpent Players invited Fugard to join them. He accepted, and by doing so integrated the company and broke the law.

Ten years later, inspired by a photograph of a black man holding a pipe in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Kani, Ntshona, and Fugard created Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and produced it privately so as to avoid breaking the law. Word got out about the play, and soon they were performing it publicly, but only in one-night stands, in order to stay ahead of the police. Eventually they left their home to perform in London and then New York, where they shared the 1975 Tony for Best Actor. When they returned to South Africa after their New York run, they were arrested and put in solitary confinement. It was only when word was smuggled to them that the acting communities in London and New York were protesting their incarceration that they knew they would be found and freed.

It is this history that we see on stage as the two old friends give us the story of Sizwe Banzi. This is not a normal tale told in a normal way. The first monologue delivered by Kani is nearly 30 minutes long, and we don’t discover why Sizwe Banzi is dead until well past the halfway mark. So you can leave your Writing for the Theatre booklets at home. In exchange you will be given a pass to the not-so-far-away land of human absurdity distorted into cruelty.

Kani and Ntshona open up the can of worms of power and greed and examine the contents from the bottom of the can upward. These characters are not concerned with protesting or creating a fuss. They are concerned with staying out of trouble and surviving, which is an ultimate impossibility because no South African (or American for that matter) black person was ever able to completely stay out of trouble. It was not the way it was done. You were marked and you would pay. You would be stopped on the street and asked for your papers, and in Section A, or B, or C, or D, there would be found a transgression.

Nicely, nicely you might say. That was then and this is now. You would, of course, be wrong. And this is where you bump into the genius of this play. Though Sizwe Banzi is Dead speaks only of goings-on in one town in one country, it transcends time, race, sex, and class. As you watch these men scheme and plot to survive, you see yourself – on both sides of the power struggle. When have you been bested? Whom have you betrayed? How has your identity been hammered together?

And sure, sure, you can blow it off by saying something fractious about George Bush and his selective hearing when it comes to countries screaming for help. “It’s not our fault we don’t do anything, or we do too much, or we get stuck in between –- blame it on Bush.” But when we no longer have George Bush to kick around, which cannot happen soon enough, plays such as Sizwe Banzi is Dead will still be here to hold up the mirror steady and true to each of us. “Look. Look here. Look well,” it says today and will say on all the tomorrows where humans dwell.

Go see this beauty as its creators add their final touches and give it to the future.

Sizwe Banzi is Dead – By Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona; directed by Aubrey Sekhabi

WITH: John Kani (Styles/Buntu) and Winston Ntshona (Robert Zwelinzima/Sizwe Banzi)
Lighting by Mannie Manim; Presented by the Baxter Theater Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, At the Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn; (718) 636-4100. Through April 19. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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