In the program notes for “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead,” McCarter Theater artistic director Emily Mann shares her special connection to this splendid revival of Athol Fugard’s acclaimed, award-winning 1972 play. It came about, in part, as a result of an article she wrote for the Los Angeles Times on the late Nelson Mandela’s legacy to the arts as well as her long-time admiration of this play. Both led to the opportunity for her to bring to McCarter this recent revival produced by South Africa’s Market Theater under the direction of John Kani, one of the play’s authors and original stars.
In partnership with Syracuse Stage, this newly envisioned production is both a gift of good theater to McCarter audiences and a wonderful chance to see Kani’s talented son, Atandwa, recreate the two roles he recently played at the Market Theater. The title role is also played by its terrific Market Theater interpreter Mncedisi Shabangu.
The shameful and insidious system of apartheid would last for nearly half a century (from 1948 through 1994) in South Africa. However, during that reign of inhumanity, black, colored, and white writers, artists, and activists who lived and worked under those intolerable conditions were also becoming increasingly empowered. Collectively and individually courageous rebels opposed the concept of “apartness” until its demise. But as we see, the work to secure freedom and justice for all continues. This is why plays such as “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead” are an important and meaningful part of the legacy for human rights.
Consider the daring of white South African playwright Fugard, along with collaborating black actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, to create this play that exposed, during the time when racial segregation was still in force, the inane bureaucracy and restrictions that kept blacks from traveling and finding employment. That Kani and Ntshona were imprisoned for performing their roles is a chilling bit of history. Also part of history is that the two shared Tony Awards in 1975 when “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead” played on Broadway.
Forty years later we can still respond to the plentiful humor as well as the amount of pathos and poignancy that the prolific Fugard (“Blood Knot,” “A Lesson From “Aloes,” and most famously among many others “Master Harold . . . and the Boys”) and co-authors Kani and Ntshona integrated into their cleverly politicized 90-minute comedy.
Although tinged with agitprop, “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” is also tempered by its casual, almost light hearted, look at the way blacks might conspire with appropriate cunning to survive. The plot, as deployed by its three beautifully imagined characters, reveals a distinctly comedic disrespect for the authoritarian restrictions that were in place at the time.
One of the play’s nicest touches is that the talented Kani, growing up literally and figuratively under the wing and guidance of his well-known father, plays Styles, an amusingly self-congratulatory, self-employed photographer. One proud of his work and for making a good living taking pictures in his studio as well as at weddings, parties, family gatherings, and funerals. He also plays his friend Buntu, a fearless chap whom Styles has aligned with Sizwe in what becomes a simple and clear case of stolen identities.
John Kani’s fine direction keeps us in thrall as we follow the collaborative efforts of three men who figure out a way to beat the system.
A vigorously animated Atandwa Kani is a pleasure to watch and listen to as Styles, who is particularly respectful of the photos he calls “dreams” that serve to memorialize people who have very little to call their own. Styles’ studio, minimally dressed with a camera on a tripod, a table, and an easel is in New Brighton, a black township outside Port Elizabeth. The studio is also literally a personal stage for Styles, our hyper-enthused, motor-mouthed host.
Styles appears almost giddy with eagerness to share with us as much of his personal story as he can. That includes his comically dramatized memory of once being employed at the Ford Motor Plant and specifically of a day that Henry Ford paid a visit. This does not stop him from incorporating the harsh reality of being black during apartheid.
Notwithstanding the numerous and very funny jokes Styles interjects, his manner and style (no pun intended) allow him to posture as a stand-up comedian as well as a social monologist. It’s a gutsy way to get the plot going, as he also regales us with stories of the people behind the photos. He brings up members of the audience to look at the collage of photos on display. It’s a winning way to break the fourth wall. For a rather long time, you may even wonder if or how another character will ever be introduced, until at last there is a knock on the door.
A well-dressed, reserved gentleman (the excellent Shabangu) enters and requests that his photograph be taken and sent to his wife who lives in King William’s Town. There is a funny interplay between the two as Styles tries to show his rather stiff but eventually receptive subject how to pose and look casual in front of the camera.
Soon enough, Banzi reveals that an unfortunate incident with the police has made getting a job in Port Elizabeth impossible with his passbook now reflecting that he must leave this city and return to live and work in King William’s Town. The plot thickens when Banzi and Buntu almost miraculously come upon a dead man with a proper passbook. They then hatch a scheme for Banzi to die and take the identity of the dead man. Banzi will then be able to find work and be reunited with his wife and their four children. The possibility that Banzi’s wife might then have to remarry the man to whom she is already married adds a wrinkle that gets a laugh but with no immediate resolve forthcoming.
Though South Africa is no longer in the grip of apartheid, we can still look at these endearing characters and consider their ghastly situation with a little less anguish and a lot more admiration. After all, it is their prevailing sense of humor and their abiding sense of humanity that is prevalent throughout a play that should be put immediately on your must-see list.
Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, February 15. $25 to $70. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.