The Theatreguide.London Review
Sizwe Banzi Is Dead
Lyttelton Theatre Spring 2007
The black South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona created this play with white dramatist Athol Fugard in 1972, when such a collaboration was itself a revolutionary act.
Even today the courage and power of its moral outrage is extraordinary, all the more so in that it is couched in moderate and frequently hilariously funny terms.
The first half of the 90 minute play is given over to John Kani as a small-town photographer, sharing his warm and humorous observations with the audience, be they his reactions to newspaper headlines, his anecdotes of a previous job in an auto plant, or the life stories he extracts from the photos he takes.
This part of the play is on its surface so unpolitical that the occasional surreptitiously slipped-in zinger scores all the more, as when the survey of the photos on display leads to the rumination that portraits are important in the black community because 'We have nothing except ourselves'.
Then Winston Ntshona enters as a customer and the focus shifts to his backstory, with Kani playing a different supporting role. Ntshona is the title character, very much alive but restricted by apartheid laws as to where he can live and work.
The chance discovery of a dead body, with a passport carrying considerably more rights, leads to the temptation to steal his identity. Let Sizwe die and Robert live on, since they all look alike to the white man anyway.
And here, of course, the play does get overtly political, though still with a sly wit and subterfuge.
A simple description of the endless and pointless process Sizwe would have to go through to get the necessary living and work permits requires no editorialising to make its point, and quoting the pastor at another man's funeral allows the play to describe the hardships of every black man's life.
Things get more overt and angry as the play goes on, culminating when Kani's character assures Sizwe that the imposture will work as long as he doesn't get in trouble with the police, leading the hitherto phlegmatic Sizwe to explode with 'Impossible. Our skin is trouble.'
It goes without saying that the two author-performers inhabit these characters entirely and that the play is an extraordinary historical document. It is also an alternately hilarious, moving and enraging living drama.
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