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Sizwe Banzi Is Dead

John Kani and Winston Ntshona reprise their roles in this vibrant tale of Apartheid-era South Africa that continues to have contemporary resonances. logo
Winston Ntshona and John Kani in Sizwe Banzi is Dead
(© Harold Gess)
Any fears that Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona's powerful 1972 play Sizwe Banzi Is Dead -- written and set in Apartheid-era South Africa -- might seem dated are quickly forgotten as Kani and Ntshona reprise their Tony Award-winning roles in this vibrant revival, currently on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music under the direction of Aubrey Sekhabi. Not only are the two actors/co-creators magnificent, but the work itself continues to have resonances in 2008.

The play is divided into two sections that are thematically related, and join up in the middle. The first part features Kani as photographer Styles, who regales the audience with anecdotes about his time working at the Ford factory and the reasons why he eventually went into business on his own. Kani is a masterful storyteller, drawing in the audience with humor, while still underscoring the more serious elements of the tale that he tells.

A little more than a half hour into the show, Ntshona enters as a man who requests his portrait to be taken to send to his wife back home. As Ntshona takes over the narrative, the tone gradually shifts as the subject matter becomes increasingly serious. We find out that the man is the titular Sizwe Banzi, who has run into trouble, and had his passbook -- which all black South Africans were required to have with them at all times -- stamped requiring him to leave Port Elizabeth. After a night of drinking with his friend Buntu (also played by Kani), the pair stumble upon a dead body. Buntu comes up with a plan to swap out Sizwe's passbook for the dead man's, but it would mean that the latter would have to give up his name in order to try to build for himself a better life.

When first performed, the play was a remarkable political statement that eventually landed Kani and Ntshona in prison, where they were put in solitary confinement for 15 days until worldwide protests caused the South African government to release them. While they are in no danger of that happening now, the play wrestles with themes of identity and survival that transcend the specifics of the show's time and place.

As security measures tighten across the world and technological advances continue to reduce individuals to collected electronic data, the play seems all too relevant. One of the production's biggest laughs comes when Buntu explains what Sizwe would need to do in order to get a new passbook with the correct stamps under his own name; it's a Kafkaesque description of bureaucracy that is both hilarious and tragic.

The two performers work so well together, and every moment in the 90-minute intermissionless show is full of life. Kani is the more gregarious of the two, and even brings a couple audience members onto the stage with him. Ntshona's accent is a little thicker requiring more concentration to understand everything he says, but his face and body are so marvelously expressive that a missed word or two does not diminish his performance in any way. The duo claim that the BAM engagement will be the final time they will do this particular play, so catch it while you still can.

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