Landmark Sizwe Banzi is Dead Remains Vibrant and Relevant
The time is 1972 (the year that Sizwe Banzi was written) or thereabout. The setting is the one-room photography studio of Styles, a lively and debonair young black man. As he reads his newspaper, Styles regales us with his cheerful, commonsensical observations on the day's news. He then tells us how he came to be the proprietor of his studio. His story illuminates the pain that living under the thumb of a racist government which controls, mistreats and disrespects him. Styles does this with satiric humor, making clear his determination to derive as much pleasure and success from his days as he can. Styles also explains how through his photography he is able to bring pride and pleasure to his customers. Styles' extended monologue is illuminating and memorable.
Soon there enters a customer who identifies himself as Robert Zwelinzima, although it will develop that his real name is Sizwe Banzi. Banzi is feeling good about his prospects, and has dressed up in an awkward fitting suit to have his picture taken in order to send it to his wife who is living in another city. As Styles goes off to develop his photograph, Banzi recites the letter which he will send to his wife along with the photograph and segues to his back story involving his abuse at the hands of Apartheid. Advising and aiding Robert during his back story is the intense and helpful Buntu, who is played by the same actor who portrays Styles.
The extraordinary (half Afrikaner/ half Irish-Dutch-Huguenot) writer Athol Fugard had founded in Cape Town earlier on, a theatre comprised of black actors who earned their living from civilian employment. Here, Fugard with collaborators John Kani and Winston Ntshona (the two actors who created the play's roles) developed Sizwe Banzi is Dead through the process of improvisation. The current production originated at Johannesburg's Market Theatre. It has been directed by co-author John Kani who originated the roles of Styles and Buntu in 1972. The physical production (Kani designed the set and costumes) is spare, yet strongly evocative, and allows for a strong sense of intimacy. Kani clearly knows every nuance in the writing, and the performances are richly detailed and fully amplify the text.
Atandwa Kani, who is John Kani's son, portrays Styles and Buntu. As Styles, Kani is totally ingratiating. We never doubt the genuine nature of Styles' hope and enthusiasm because of the ease and delight with which Kani displays it. As the practical, clear-eyed Bantu, Kani conveys the no nonsense approach of a practical, somewhat older leader. Mncedisi Shabangu is excellent as Sizwe, a decent, simple man the achievement of whose modest dreams is not possible in apartheid South Africa without his willingness and ability to become a conniver.
Shabangu's depiction of Sizwe's photograph is sheer joy. Sizwe Banzi is Dead and Alive and Well in New Jersey.
Sizwe Banzi is Dead continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday (except 2/3), Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday(except 2/15) / Matinees: Saturday 3 PM; Sunday 2 PM) through February 15, 2015, at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org .
Sizwe Banzi is Dead by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona; directed by John Kani