Friday, February 26, 2021

482. SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

John Kani, Winston Ntshona.
SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD [Drama/Politics/Race/South Africa] A: Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona; D: Athol Fugard; S: Stuart Wurtzel; C: Bill Walker; L: Ronald Wallace; P: Hillard Elkins/Lester Osterman Productions/Bernard Delfont/Michael White b/a/w The English Stage Company, Ltd., in the Royal Court Theatre Production; T: Edison Theatre; 11/13/74-5/18/75 (52)

A two-man drama “devised” as a collaborative effort by South Africa’s greatest playwright, Athol Fugard, and two Black countrymen of his, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, with the latter pair’s improvisations used as the basis of plot and dialogue. It played in repertory with The Island, a similarly created work. Both plays came to Broadway after a successful stay at London’s Royal Court Theatre.

These were political plays reflective of the crushing agony endured by millions of South African Blacks under the burden of apartheid. The creators were all members of a Port Elizabeth drama troupe, the Serpent Players, founded in 1961.

A gripping, if slow moving, 45-minute monologue spoken by Styles (Kani) opens the work, as he comments, in a seeming improvisation, on newspaper headlines and recounts the story of how he had progressed from a Ford motor plant assembly line to an entrepreneur with his own little photography studio in Port Elizabeth. Part of the monologue requires participation from several audience members. Styles is interrupted by the arrival of a customer, Sizwe Banzi (Ntshona), a Black man from a small country town, who has come to the city to find work so he can support his family back home.

At first Sizwe says he wants a photo to send to his wife and children. As the play progresses, we learn via flashback that his need for the photo is for another reason. Having realized that his identification passbook contains a stamp making his continued presence in Port Elizabeth illegal, he conspires with a friend, Buntu (Kani, again), to steal the passbook of a dead man they have come across and to assume his identity and job. Sizwe wants Styles to take a photo that he can place in the dead man’s passbook.

Though the play took some time to get going, it gradually grew more and more involving, “and the sheer dramatic force of the piece bounced around the theatre like angry thunderbolts of pain,” declared Clive Barnes. There were very strong encouragements voiced for the incisive indictment of South Africa’s inhumane policies whereby a man is reduced to no more than a number and a passbook, yet where men like Styles and Sizwe Banzi continue to uphold the principles of human pride and dignity.

Both Kani and Ntshona received accolades for their full-bodied portrayals; they even shared the Tony for Best Actor, Play (for both this play and The Island). Here is Harold Clurman on their contributions:

The acting is the word become flesh; we are hardly able to differentiate between text and performances. John Kani, in both instances, plays the ‘leader,” the more knowledgeably articulate one; Winston Ntshona the more naively puzzled one. Kani is all driving impulse, which might render him breathless if he were not propelled by extraordinary energy. . . . The effect of his passion is joyful. It inspires confidence, not only in but in mankind itself.


Ntshona is charming in his confusion; though he must struggle to understand, we are sure that his instincts will lead to the right action. Technically he is more of a character actor than Kani, but his characterizations spring spontaneously from his inner being, so his effects are as natural as Kani’s. Both these men have acted together since their boyhood. They are now more than a term; together they have become emblematic of a people. Such acting carries primitive force; it is clear, sharp, seemingly free of any “aesthetic” premeditation. 

The play itself was Tony nominated, as was Fugard for Best Director, Play (including The Island).