During its initial run, “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” was performed without a script.

It had to be, co-author, John Kani says, because the written word was the corroborating evidence South African authorities used to ban plays and impose criminal charges during Apartheid, the long period of enforced segregation and subjugation of the country’s black majority in effect when Kani, Winston Ntshona, and Athol Fugard produced the piece in 1972.

“Under the law,” Kani says by phone from his home in Johannesburg, “the play did not exist if it did not have a script. At least no one could prove it existed or verify its text. So we never made a script. Winston and I created the material with Athol Fugard. We knew its content, so we could go out each night and perform it, almost like the storytellers of ancient days before there was a printing press or even access to paper. Dialogue changed some most nights. We could improvise and adapt, so we did. In general we were doing a play we created and rehearsed from memory. It was the only way.”

Yet, he adds, there were consequences. “The people who took the brunt,” Kani says, “were the theater owners. We made it so authorities could not touch us. They had no evidence. But they would send police to watch our show, and the police would close down the theater for presenting subversive or incendiary material. The closing would usually last one night and was a badge of honor. The policy made us itinerants at times. We’d be shut out of one theater and move to another like people who can’t pay their rent. It was quite exciting.

“The time Winston and I thought we had to be going to prison was when we looked out at our audience and saw more police than random customers. We imagined ourselves being in the middle of a raid. It turned out that police were having a convention at a hotel near the theater and came to see our show for entertainment. They laughed and applauded and were an attentive audience that caused no trouble. Meanwhile, Winston and I were apprehensive the entire time. That’s how insane and tenuous life was in South Africa,” he says.

In the more than 40 years since its creation, “Sizwe Banzi is Dead,” at Princeton’s McCarter Theater through Sunday, February 15, has become a South African classic. The story of a man in search of a work-seeker’s permit is required reading in that country’s schools, and known to all as a primary work relating to South Africa’s racial intolerance before 1990, when Nelson Mandela emerged from prison to lead a newly formed and officially integrated country.

While Fugard continues at age 82 to be a major playwright (his “The Shadow of the Hummingbird” premiered last year at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven), Kani and Ntshona earned international acclaim when they performed “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” in London and New York, where it garnered a Tony nomination for best play and earned its actor/authors the Tony as best actors in a play for 1975. Their British and American success spared Kani and Ntshona a term in jail. They returned to South Africa, were arrested while performing a now-scripted “Sizwe Banzi,” and were confined without hearing charges for 23 days. Then they were suddenly released.

“The authorities roughly said ‘our friends abroad’ raised such an outcry the government was forced to release us,” Kani says. “They were harsh in delivering the news, and you could tell they were reluctant to let us go. They resented our ‘friends’ for intervening. Winston and I moved to London soon after that.”

Kani and Ntshona played “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” as part of a general repertoire for several years. Now the play is being revived, with Kani as director, at McCarter and in Syracuse. The actor playing his parts in the multi-character piece is his son, Atandwa Kani. Mncedisi Shabangu takes the roles created by Winston Ntshona — who has been named “a living treasure” by the South Africa National Arts Council and works as chairman of the Eastern Cape Cultural Units to interest young South Africans in theater.

Kani says it was enlightening and more than a little dismaying to work with a younger cast, especially one that includes his son.

“I learned that a brief 25 years after Apartheid was dissolved, the children of South Africa do not know their history. They are not cognizant of the struggle that preceded Nelson Mandela’s release from prison or the danger in which people put themselves for 40 years and more.

“Twenty-five years had bred comfort. My own son, I learned, took so much of what we did from 1950 to 1990 for granted. He and Mncedisi are beneficiaries of a struggle they don’t take the time and aren’t given the education to comprehend. He, like many in his generation, see ‘Sizwe Banzi’ as a story, a work of literature studied in school, a classic but no more. They regard what happens in ‘Sizwe Banzi’ the way we regard the historical context in Shakespeare or Greek plays. The events in ‘Sizwe Banzi’ had no immediate meaning to them. That was disconcerting and one of the elements we worked on and fixed in rehearsal.”

To play “Sizwe Banzi” with passion and conviction, Kani says, “You have to know the history that leads to it. You have to know what this man, this Sizwe Banzi risks to get an identity card, a document so essential to the black person during Apartheid and the source of so much terror and vindictiveness. They had to understand what Winston Ntshona, Athol Fugard, and I risked each night putting on this play. ‘Sizwe Banzi’ was our salvo. It was our rock, hurled from the Soweto village in the face of the authorities, the oppressors, who worried as much about humor and storytelling as they did about any other kind of missile. My son and Mncedisi Shabangu had to feel, deep in their being, what ‘Sizwe Banzi’ represented, and why it touched South African audiences so thoroughly.”

Kani says that he is talking about black audiences in particular, but he also includes white audiences because there were white people who abhorred and opposed Apartheid and were shamed and appalled by the hatred, mistreatment, and prosecution that was so rampant. “Athol Fugard withstood a lot of criticism and abuse for being a white man working with Winston Ntshona and me,” he says.

Kani continues with authority: “So one of the tasks I saw at once when we embarked on rehearsals was to give Atandwa, born in 1982 and aged eight years when Apartheid was defeated, and Mncedisi a lesson in their own history, a lesson it irritated me that they did not know. One byproduct of this teaching and explaining of passion was my son began to see me and what Winston Ntshona and I accomplished. He saw what I meant when I said the young should challenge people of my generation who never threw a rock or spoke up, who accepted the atrocities we handle in subtle and direct ways in ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead.’ And they had to be sure to know why Sizwe Banzi valued his identity card and was willing to go to such extreme lengths to acquire it.

“That identity card was the document of oppression. It controlled your life and allowed authorities to ruin your life. I had to make this clear in 2015 so Atandwa and Mncedisi could feel the outrage we lived in 1972 and for years before and after.

“Doing this made coming back to ‘Sizwe Banzi’ a strange experience because so much groundwork Winston Ntshona and I knew in every molecule of our being had to be laid. The confusion, pain, and meanness of a time had to be inculcated. It had to be part of their DNA just as it was for Winston and me. They had to realize a level of abuse and discrimination that was foreign to them. They had to understand suffering and defiance. They had to learn black history, their history. The disappointment for me was it was totally unfamiliar to them. Time had healed well, but it erased the essence of how black people lived for many years, and a memory and understanding of that must be preserved for people of my son’s generation to appreciate their benefits in depth.

“The gratification came as we progressed, and the actors seized the material. And what father doesn’t enjoy the day when his son looks at him in wonder and says, ‘Dad, you were a hero, a leader. How come I never knew this?’”

Storytelling was John Kani’s way of contributing to the fight against Apartheid.

He had been a rebel, thrown rocks, and participated in peaceful protests — peaceful until the police used force — but he found his purpose in his ability to focus on and dramatize the daily plight of the black South African.

“I come from a family of storytellers,” Kani says. “Listening to my grandfather, I learned the technique of blending substance with humor. He made severe comments, but he couched them in satire. One of his favorite jokes was about the white man who had three wives but couldn’t spell ‘polygamy.’ ”

Kani’s grandfather was also a polygamist and had three wives who raised the future actor and instilled in him a confidence and boldness that he used to advance despite coming from a poor background. While cleaning tanks for Ford Motor Company he heard of a small group putting on plays and sought them out. “I too had a knack for storytelling and for getting people’s attention — I’m talking about political attention — by illustrating through stories. I soon learned the underground code that made information plain to my audience but not always to the police who were constantly paying attention as my stories attracted listeners and watchers. You have to understand that in South Africa, authorities were so threatened, they banned congregation and could arrest you for talking on a street corner to a friend. That could be construed as conspiracy. The only safe places to meet were natural places of assembly, theaters and churches,” he says.

Noting that “theater became my metier,” Kani continues with his history. “I met Winston, and we began doing sketches. We then met Athol Fugard, a white man who took tremendous risk in giving the work of two black storytellers shape that turned what they did into plays. Our company, called the Serpent Players, did original pieces along with Greek classics. Winston Ntshona and I would do script after script, although we never produced an actual script. We did several pieces before ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead’ and its companion play, ‘The Island.’ They began to receive attention from theatergoers and the police.”

Kani says that the theater was considered dangerous and could express ideas in code, a place where black and white could be together. “Always a cause for suspicion to the authorities.”

About the origin of “Sizwe Banzi is Dead,” Kani says that it “was suggested by a photograph that made Winston, Athol, and me curious. It was of a black man dressed to the nines and smiling broadly with a lit pipe and cigarette in his mouth. Athol asked why he looked so happy, and I answered, ‘Because his identity card is in order.’

“Those observations became the basis of this play my son studied in school and now understands. We built a play about a man who needed to establish his identity firmly, in a way that would not give license to authorities to detain him in jail. The identity card provides the surface story. The humor couches pain. But, as the audiences in 1972 understood, horror, shame, and ugliness resonate through the story. Sizwe Banzi has to die to preserve Sizwe Banzi. It is the humiliation, reconciliation, and insanity of that act that propels the story.

The damage of Apartheid and the steps one must take to defeat go beyond a tale about identity. Black audiences told us they would give up a meal to see a performance of ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead.’ White audiences talked about the face Athol, Winston, and I put on Apartheid. We showed the human toll of atrocity, and also the absurdity of it. I am so happy this play will now be seen by a new generation in Princeton and Syracuse.”

Kani says one of his favorite experiences involving the perception of blackness came when he was performing in Australia. “I met with Aborigines, and they asked me, told me actually, that I had to be of mixed race. I said, ‘I don’t think I am. Why do you?’ They answered, ‘Because you are so light-skinned.’

“Not in the South Africa of the first 47 of my 72 years, I wasn’t. You see how relative some matters are to time and place. History, however, must be remembered and preserved.”

Sizwe Banzi is Dead, McCarter Theater, University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, February 15. $25 to $70. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.

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