Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead
The play opens with a monologue by Styles, a sweet-natured man who spent six years as a "bloody monkey" in a Ford Motor plant. He eventually finds his calling by opening a photographic studio, which allows him to record "the dreams and hopes of my people," people "who would be forgotten ... if it wasn't for Styles." The monologue seems aimless at firstit lasts over forty minutes, and tends to ramble at times, but it eventually holds together thanks to the skill of actor Forrest McClendon. McClendon not only charms the audiencehis hilarious pantomime recreation of how he purged a cockroach infestation from his studio drew applause on opening nightbut he drives home the playwrights' point: that "the history that the writers of the great books always forget" is worth celebrating.
Sizwe Bansi is one of the forgotten men. About halfway through the play, he arrives in Styles' studio to have his photo takenbut he uses an assumed name. "Sizwe Bansi is, in a manner of speaking, dead," he tells the audience. The reason: Sizwe needed to raise money to support his wife and children, so he left his hometown to look for work in the city of Port Elizabeth. But he couldn't find work there, because his passbookthe insidious book that black South Africans were required to carry at all timessaid that he was only allowed to work in his hometown. "They called it the book of life," says his angry friend Buntu. "They lied to us." The passbook is just another way for the white government to keep the blacks under their control in a country where "your number is more important than your name." And so Buntu has devised a plan to have Sizwe tell a lie of his own: Sizwe Bansi must be dead, and another man must be brought back to life.
That description might sound dreary; indeed, there are moments where the speeches get a little too dry. The script tends to make the same points repeatedly. But Sizwe Bansi is Dead works its magic subtly, thanks to sensitive direction by Peter DeLaurier. And the performances are excellent: McClendon shines not only as the charming Styles but also as the blunt Buntu, who forcefully tells Sizwe some uncomfortable truths. Lawrence Stallings is equally good as Sizwe, whose winning smile gives way to a pained expression that tells you how much Sizwe hates the choice he's been forced to make. (Both actors have skillfully mastered African accents, which greatly adds to the air of authenticity.) Special notice should also be made of the lighting by Janet Embree and David O'Connor, which heightens the drama at just the right moments.
If you don't think you're in the mood for an Apartheid drama, think again. Sizwe Bansi Is Dead examines that ugliness from an unusual angle, but its message about the quest for identity and nobility still resonates strongly today.
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead runs through March 1, 2009 and is presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets. Ticket prices range from $20 to $35 and may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 215-829-0395, online at www.lanterntheater.org or in person at the box office.
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead