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Spring 2015 News

South African actor, director, and playwright, Dr. John Kani in conversation with Tufts University lecturer, Dr. Gibson Cima

Dr. Kani is directing his son, Atandwa Kani, as Styles (a role that Dr. Kani originated in 1972) in a new production of the landmark South African protest play, Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, until February 15th, 2015. As part of my research into the influence of South Africa's anti-apartheid theatre on the country's post-apartheid stages, I have had the opportunity to interview Dr. Kani on three occasions. When I first interviewed him in 2006, he was playing the role of Styles in the original cast revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead. We recently spoke about how his relationship to the play has changed now that he is directing his son in the role that made him famous and now that his son is making autobiographical theatre pieces of his own, including last year's Hayani, which Atandwa devised with fellow young South African actor Nat Ramabulani. Excerpts from our conversation appear below:

Mncendisi Shabangu, Dr. John Kani, Atandwa Kani

GC: We spoke in 2010. We spoke in 2006, when you were in the middle of the original cast revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead. Has your relationship to the play changed now that you're directing your son in that you originated?

John Kani: Not only that I'm directing my son, but that I'm directing a cast that wasn't born when I first did this play with Athol Fugard and Winston [Ntshona] in 1972. I gave them the script a month early. And the script is not the usual, that is, the published by Oxford (1974). It is a recorded performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2003. We did the final performance there and they gracefully gave me the recorded performance. So, when we met, I asked them, "Now, what do you think the play's about?" Now, I'm expecting it's a great classic about protest theatre. It's a great play about the struggle, about the suffering of black people under pass laws and apartheid law. They said, "It's a great play about identity. It is a play that challenges humanity. It is man's inhumanity to man. And also it's got two great parts as actors!" [Laughs.] You know, I thought, okay, okay, and then I send them away to do research on that time in the seventies I remember the other actor [Mncendisi Shabangu] saying to my son, Mncendisi saying, "Why are we going away, we're leaving the library in the room now. Let's interrogate him." [Laughs.] And then they sat down and they asked questions about apartheid in the seventies. They asked questions about the role of theatre in the seventies. They asked questions about underground movements, the militants, the structure, the organization, United Democratic Front (UDF), relationships with the international community. They asked questions about the cultural isolation of South Africa, the anti-apartheid [movement]. And they asked questions, how was the play received outside, first in South Africa, then outside South Africa. And all that, of course, culminating with the Tony Award on Broadway for Best Actor (1975). But then, that was the first week of the rehearsal, was unpacking this text and getting to interrogate the story. I was trying to get to their minds. I want them to understand that this play is one of the costs of our democracy—is what we paid. Because young people, they think that democracy came after Nelson Mandela's release and everything was negotiated and we are a very free country. You know, there's a generation--I'm seventy-one years old--that lived . . . . You know, I was fifty-one years when I first voted in 1994. Fifty-one years old. The nightmare of the past, I can't close my eyes. When I sleep, I dream running. I dream escaping. I dream jumping. The nightmares are still with me. So, I've been very cautious, as a father, not to transfer this baggage to my children, who have no memory of that time.

Gibson Cima

GC: I saw Hayani and was really taken with it. [Hayani is Venda for "home." John Kani's son, Atandwa Kani, and another young South African actor, Nat Ramabulana, devised the piece together in 2013 on the theme of home. In it, Atandwa plays a scene of his famous father meeting his mother, as well as scenes from his early childhood.] I really enjoyed it and I thought it was reinterpreting the John [Kani] and Winston [Ntshona] dynamic for a contemporary audience and using that playmaking style that you developed with Winston [Ntshona] and with Athol [Fugard] to a contemporary subject, to a post-apartheid subject. What does it mean to use the word, "home?" What does it mean to be at home? What does it mean for this lost generation between the born-frees [who were born after 1994] and the resistance fighters? Where do we fit in?

John Kani: What I realized, at universities, when they study these plays of the past, the classics, including the Greek tragedies, including contemporary work, there is an emphasis from the lecturers about the miracle of such plays at that time, which then gives the young student it opens possibilities of being able to create work and not just simply depend on looking on the shelf to find already written plays, which they are studying. Look at the possibility of you yourself, like Winston [Ntshona], like John [Kani], like Athol [Fugard], who took subjects, which were interwoven with the reality of their own lives and they created incredible theatre, which was a major breakthrough in destroying the fourth wall where we were integrating the audience. We used the African style of sitting around the fire and saying, "Once upon a time . . . ." And so these students come out now eager because of the not much activity within the TV and film industry. They come out of university and they join the unemployed actors' line and then they opt to remember, by the way, we studied improvisation; we studied the theatre of the sixties and the seventies; we studied the works of John Kani and Winston Ntshona; we studied the Fugard; we studied the Maishe Maponya; we studied the Zakes Mda; we can create. We can create and we mustn't fear to be vulnerable. Because when I sat with the mother watching Hayani for the first time, we kept doing this to each other [points playfully]. He was getting a bit close to the bone. And I thought, this is what I would have done. I did this to my father. Sizwe Banzi, that funeral [in the play] is my grandfather's funeral. I worked six years at Ford [just like the character of Styles in Sizwe]. Ford arrived, I was a dog. That man who takes his hat off when the policeman says come [in the play], I was walking with my father. I was walking with him. He was six feet, six inches tall and when that man came up and he did this [mimes taking his hat off in a gesture of submission]. He says, "Yes." You see? And when my father came to see the play at St. Stephen's Church Hall in New Brighton town-ship with one-hundred-and-fifty chairs, but six hundred people in the hall, standing all over. We even used the stage to put more church chairs. We worked in a corner with Winston [Ntshona]. The police were standing in all exits. My father said, "You must never call me to come and see your play. That's not a play. It's a political meeting." But he said, "Some of the things you say there hurt." Now I wanted to understand, does it hurt him because I talked about him? But he said, no, it hurt them as elders. He wanted to explain how we did not understand the sacrifice in the insult on their dignity they took so that I can have the right to say this. Because if I had done what I think they should have done I wouldn't have been born because he would have been killed. I was amazed because I was thinking he's going to say, "You're talking about me." He didn't say that. He said we went through that. He said you don't understand. You may think that we were subservient. It hurt us to take that hat off. But there were two options: I take my hat off or I get in the police van and what would you do? You'd have to walk home.

GC: So, how did you feel about the portrait of you that's in Hayani? About Atandwa . . . .

John Kani: Describing me as a grizzly bear? I felt proud. I felt proud at his—at both of them that they had the courage to confront the truth, their truth. And how I perceived that truth was my responsibility. I felt very proud. Very proud. They treated the material with incredible care and dignity.

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