When South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona first put on Sizwe Banzi Is Dead in Cape Town in 1972, it was an act of artistic daring and personal bravery from two black men defying the rules of apartheid. Detained for their audacity, the pair was undeterred and in 1973 staged the epic The Island (performed at BAM in Spring 2003), a revelatory work set in the infamous Robben Island prison. Created with Afrikaner director Athol Fugard, the plays garnered the performers a Tony award and international recognition for their deeply nuanced portrayal of humanity that persists in spite of travel bans and iron bars.
Thirty-five years later, these celebrated creative partners reprise roles whose relevance only continues to deepen and evolve today. Delicately balancing humor and pathos, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead offers both a psychological history of the apartheid nightmare and a timeless parable of the dehumanizing paradoxes of power. Ordered to leave a district because he lacks the proper permit, Sizwe trades his name for a number and begins life as a dead man, wreaking havoc with his identity and sense of right and wrong.