History is alive and well in the revival of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s award-winning play, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, currently running at the Baxter Theatre.
Starring Atandwa Kani as Styles/Buntu, the role that earned his father and director of this 2015 edition, John Kani, a Best Actor Tony Award and Mncedisi Shabangu as Sizwe/Robert, this poignant comical play is about a beleaguered black man who has to pretend to be someone else and declare himself dead to overcome oppressive work regulations at the height of apartheid and ensure the financial future of his family.
Written in 1972, and performed in South Africa, London and on Broadway, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, with Kani Snr and Ntshona reprising their roles, was first performed on the Baxter Theatre stage in 2006. Mired in controversy, this play has grabbed the world’s attention for more than three decades, with Kani Snr and Ntshona once being arrested for performing it too.
In 2015, we live in a different country to the one this show was conceived in and its revival has been much more positively received, much to my and other fans ‘delight.
On opening night on Friday 21 August, 2015, Atandwa had his father’s big shoes to fill in his performance of Styles/Buntu, but he succeeded and admirably so. More than once, I sniggered out loud at his boisterous performance as photographic entrepreneur Styles, but also felt a deep emotional connection to Buntu, the struggling township friend who helps Sizwe switch identities when they discover a dead body on a drunken night out.
Shabangu as Sizwe/Robert makes a wonderful foil to Kani’s more solemn characters, telling the strange tale of his identity crisis to the audience as a narration of a letter he has written to his wife. The actor really comes into his own during this tear-jerking monologue, when he reclaims his manly dignity and overcomes his reluctance to live as the ghost of another man.
“Am I not a human being? I’ve got eyes to see. I’ve got ears. I’ve got a head to think good things. Am I not a human being?” he asks. I promise you there cannot be a dry eye in the house when hearing this poor man say these words out loud.
What I love most about this often humorous but always moving play is that it speaks to the utter senselessness of the apartheid era, where just being you, and being human, was a crime punishable by imprisonment. We are so busy fortifying the rainbow nation, we forget the gravity of the age before – the lives, families, people who were lost along the way.
To bear witness to this iconic play is a rare and beautiful privilege. Sizwe Banzi is Dead is must-see theatre at its best so go see it!
Keen to get a bite to eat before the show? Pop by for the Baxter Restaurant for the best vegetarian offerings this side of the Southern Suburbs. I’m crazy about their buffet special, which includes a pasta dish, a vegetable bake, a curry and a samoosa for R 75. Not that hungry? Grab koeksisters for less than R 20 from the stand next to the downstairs bar… real Cape Malay goodness you can’t miss out on!
Sizwe Banzi is Dead runs at the Baxter Theatre until Saturday 12 September, 2015. Tickets are R120 (previews, matinee and Baxter Mondays), R130 Tuesday to Thursday and R150 over weekends and are available at Computicket.