Syracuse Stage’s ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead’ keeps the message very much alive
This compelling character-driven drama set within the grip of Apartheid in 1972 South Africa resonates just as powerfully in 2015 America
Syracuse Stage’s elegant production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a beautifully wrought and profoundly moving piece of theater that captures the essence of the human drama — and drives home its message with humor and sensitivity.
Written in 1972 by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead seems like an artifact of sorts, looking as it does into the South Africa of 43 years ago. But the play, superbly acted and beautifully woven by director (and co-author) John Kani over the course of its hour and a half span, offers much more than a window into another era.
Part of the power of this production is that the message still resonates with today’s audiences. It speaks not only to a particular time and place (South Africa of almost half a century ago) and the struggles that blacks faced under Apartheid, but also closer to home in the United States at present — including struggles with civil rights and the relationship between governmental authority and the police. The place of minority communities is part of America’s national conversation at this very moment. And Sizwe Banzi Is Dead invites us to ponder, and confront, these issues.
While the specifics of the situation may changed since 1972, the need for basic human dignity and equality under the law remains the same. What happens to people when they are denied these rights is articulated in this play, and the universal message appears equally valid for all times and places.
There’s another historical aspect to this play as well. Kani not only directs and serves as scenic and costume designer here, but he also acted in the original production — winning a Tony Award for his trouble (which included a stay in solitary confinement, compliments of the South African secret police). Kani’s son, Atandwa Kani, a noted actor in his own right, plays the duel roles of Styles and Buntu. The edler Kani is a luminary in the world of theatre and a giant in the South African theatrical world.
The current Syracuse Stage production gives Central New Yorkers a chance to see a side of the artistic process we do not often get to see: one of the original creator’s repackaging of the timeless message for a new audience in a new place and a new time. The fact that Kani is directing his son in a role he helped write and bring to life only adds to the excitement and buzz.
What is special about this play is that it demonstrates the power of contemporary drama to make an impact in the world. Yes, the audience will enjoy this. They will get aesthetic pleasure and cathartic release from engaging with this drama. But the play is also a prime example of what came to be known as “protest theatre.” Sizwe Banzi is Dead exists as a work of art, but the purpose of the original drama was to draw attention to deep-rooted social problems and encourage real and fundamental change.
Most Americans know the name Nelson Mandela and recognize his role in the fight against Apartheid, but it is fair to say that activists like Kani played another and perhaps equally important role in the struggle for freedom. This production affords the audience a chance to witness the power of this movement.
A detailed knowledge of the politics of Apartheid is not necessary to understand or enjoy the play. Still, the program booklet contains informative and well-written essays and interviews that are well worth the read. Moreover, the photographic exhibit in the lobby (fascinating in its own right) provides a brief yet comprehensive overview of the issues relevant to the play.
Sizwe Banzi is Dead is elegant in its simplicity. The curtain is open as the audience enters the theatre to a bare stage, save for some simple props: a camera on a tripod, a table, two chairs, a board with photographs pinned to it and several other common items. The house lights stay on as Atandwa Kani enters as Styles, a photographer with his own shop trying to eek out a living on his own terms under the repressive Apartheid regime. He sits upon a chair and begins to read a newspaper, commenting to the audience about the different headlines. Though the headlines date from 1972, they could just as easily apply to 2015.
Styles tells us about problems in the Middle East, the escalating conflict between Russia and the West, domestic violence and other pressing issues of the time — which seem to be with us still, despite our best efforts as a society.
The house lights continue to stay on as Styles addresses the audience directly, recounting his story. Eventually, the house lights dim as Styles continues to speak. What marks Atandwa Kani’s performance here is his humor and warmth. This part of the play shows John Kani and his fellow playwrights’ technical skills: They use humor to connect with their audience and deliver their social commentary. The show is never preachy, however. It always rings true — making the audience laugh and think simultaneously.
To be sure, Atandwa Kani is both hilarious and moving as he weaves his own story into those of his compatriots. Here, and throughout the play, the lighting design by Mannie Manim works to draw in the audience at key moments and connect them with the characters. Styles, for example, speaks directly to us — as if we are friends who just stopped by.
The photographs that Styles takes for his black countrymen — commemorating births, deaths, family and personal milestones of all sorts — tell the stories of people who would otherwise be silenced by the Apartheid system and the government and police who enforce it. The audience is treated to Atandwa’s solo performance for approximately 40 minutes or so. It was a delight to watch him play with language and accents (he has a gift for storytelling). There were even moments involving audience participation.
Atandwa Kani is then is then joined by Mncedisi Shabangu, who introduces himself as “Robert.” Robert is hoping to get a photograph of him to send to his wife and children in another town, some 150 miles away. He has come to Port Elizabeth to find work and provide a better life for his family. In the second half of the play Shabangu takes center stage, directly addressing the audience as he dictates a letter to his wife, telling her (and us) the story of Sizwe Banzi’s strange death.
Shabangu matches Atandwa Kani’s intensity and range on stage, delivering lines with just as much poignancy and humor. Atandwa Kani returns to the stage as Buntu in this scene. Here his humor as Styles is surpassed by the quiet anger and turmoil that he and Robert (along with the rest of his countrymen) are experiencing being forced to live with the indignities of Apartheid.
In this scene, Atandwa Kani (as Buntu) is formulating a plan for Shabangu’s character to get the correct work permit he needs to stay and seek employment in Port Elizabeth. His delivery is masterful, building to a crescendo of rapid-fire lines that highlights the utter ridiculousness — and utter sadness — of their situation. It had this reviewer comparing it to any tongue twister from a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. Later in this same scene, Shabangu delivers a monologue reminiscent of Shylock’s Hath not a Jew eyes? speech in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and delivers it with as much pathos as anyone on the Globe Theatre stage.
Both actors use these opportunities to showcase their comic ability and emotional intensity. They bring great power and energy to their roles, but that capacity has been stewarded by a great director. Indeed, Kani has bought out tour de force performances from these talented actors.
I’m always impressed with the offerings at Syracuse Stage. We are so very fortunate to have this cultural resource in our arts community. Sizwe Banzi is Dead offers an opportunity to see world-class actors in a world-class production. It’s not to be missed.
What: Sizwe Banzi is Dead, directed by John Kani
Who: Syracuse Stage
Playwrights: Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona
Where: Archbold Theater, Syracuse Stage Complex 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse
Performance reviewed: Friday, Feb. 27, 2015 (opening night)
Time of performance: About one hour and 30 minutes, without intermission
Remaining performances: Plays through Mar. 15
Tickets: $30-$54, various discounts available: Call (315) 443-3275 or SyracuseStage.org
Family guide: Profanity