Sizwe Banzi Is Dead
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 8, 2008
The actors would like to convey that the revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead at BAM April 8-19, 2008 will be their final performance of this play.
The above note, unobtrusively slipped into the press kit, says volumes. I am so grateful that John Kani and Winston Ntshona chose to say farewell to this play in a theatre where I could see them do it. This is one of the season's can't-miss events.
Kani and Ntshona first performed Sizwe Banzi is Dead in 1972 in Capetown, South Africa, when, as an interview included in the press kit notes, the play's content made its presentation illegal. How must they feel when they slip back into the roles of Styles and Buntu (Kani's characters) and Sizwe Banzi (Ntshona's) knowing that their brave collaboration with playwright Athol Fugard contributed to the history of their native country, by helping to call attention to Apartheid on the world stage? (The American premiere of Sizwe Banzi is Dead in 1974 brought Kani and Ntshona Tony Awards, for one small example.)
The play begins, with sly good humor, in Styles' Photography Studio in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The proprietor, Mr. Styles, talks to us as length about how he left a steady but low-paying job in the local Ford automobile factory for the riskier but much more rewarding prospect of his own business:
I took a good look at my life. What did I see? A bloody circus monkey! Selling most of his time on this earth to another man. Out of every 24 hours I could only properly call mine the six when I was sleeping. What the hell is the use of that?
Inside this speech is the theme of Sizwe Banzi is Dead: that every man finally is his own master, whatever it takes to make that happen. Styles is far luckier than Sizwe Banzi, the illiterate young man from the provinces who happens into his studio to get a photo taken that he can send to his wife; he is finding work here in the city and hoping to earn enough to bring her and their children to Port Elizabeth in the near future. But his work permit has, for whatever reason, been stamped to indicate that he cannot stay in Port Elizabeth. With a new friend, Buntu, Sizwe arrives at a solution—but it's one that costs him his very name. Momentous choices are required in desperate circumstances.
If the specific political situation that inspired this remarkable play is no longer around, the need for the courage to question and, yes, poke fun at the pride- and productivity-killing bureaucratic tendencies of contemporary human organizations—which fuels most of this play—remains very much with us.
But it is the enormous humanity that Kani and Ntshona bring to their characters that makes this production so essential. Kani's versatility in creating the very different men Styles and Buntu is extraordinary: when he came on stage as Buntu for the first time, he seemed in every way so unfamiliar that I thought for a minute that surely a third actor had somehow been added. Ntshona's physicality is breathtaking: he brings the grace and pathos of the very greatest clowns (e.g., Keaton, Chaplin, Irwin) to his Sizwe. The moments when Kani's Styles is trying to get Ntshona's Sizwe to pose just right for his picture are hilarious, memorable, and ineffably touching.
So it's something of an honor for New York to be the last place on Earth to see these two consummate performers in one of their signature pieces. If you care about great acting or if you care about the course of human history—and hopefully I haven't left any of my readers out at this point—then you owe it yourself to see Sizwe Banzi is Dead at BAM this week.