‘Sizwe Banzi’ lives again at the Baxter with a new generation of actors

‘Sizwe Banzi’ lives again at the Baxter with a new generation of actors

The South African theatre classic ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead’, directed by John Kani and starring Mncedisi Shabangu and Atandwa Kani, landed on the Baxter Flipside stage this week and will be running until September 12, at 7.30pm nightly.
Forty years since Kani and Winston Ntshona won the Best Actor Tony Award for their performances in the play, which they co-created with Athol Fugard, and nearly a decade after the two theatre veterans reprised their roles at the Baxter in 2006, Kani has returned as director, with his son in the role which he made famous.
“Winston, Athol and I were like Drs Frankenstein creating a monster that has occupied our lives for more than four decades. When Syracuse and Princeton Theatres asked me to revive this production I was very elated. It gave me the opportunity to work with younger South African actors who were not even born when this play was first staged,” says the celebrated theatre-maker.
PETER TROMP chatted with the two young stars of the play.

ATANDWA KANI
Tell us about the production and what audiences can look forward to…in 140 characters or less.
Audiences can look forward to a timeless classic being performed with respect and humility for what has gone before with this production’s proud history.

Why do you think the production is still relevant for this time in SA?
Identity is a fundamental and certainly relevant issue in South Africa today and it is ever shifting. We have people who cross borders, travelling far and wide in search of a better life; people who are in desperate need of citizenship so they can work. In many places people are still being discriminated against because they are deemed as “illegal immigrants”. ‘Sizwe Banzi’ is one of these men.

Tell us about your character and how you went about realising the role. What unique qualities do you think you’re bringing to your character?
I play two characters who are total opposites of one another. One is a ball of energy and sunshine, optimistic and always dreaming – I believe we all have these qualities and aspirational attributes within us. The second is a man who has become numb to the political injustices, so he now lives between the cracks of the rules. He is cynical, a realist. We live in a country that can change anybody into being the latter kind of man.

What’s it like working with your father on this production, knowing that he starred in the original ‘Sizwe Banzi’ all those years ago?
I am working with Dr John Kani, not my father. Dr Kani is our theatrical commodity, our artistic gem. Working with him is a pleasure and an amazing honour. Performing this same role does not put me under any pressure to do a “great job” in the eyes of the public, but a greater want to pay homage to this giant of an artist. My father raised me to be the man I am today: responsible, civil, a provider and a great father.

Tell us about your co-star Mncedisi Shabang and how you guys went about establishing a workable chemistry in the play.
I have always adored and respected Mncedisi and he has said that he watched my career progress. Even before we met for this project, we have always had a sibling-like relationship. There is loads of respect, care and love between us, so all of that also translates to the working environment. He is absolutely spell-binding. I learn something from him every single day.

MNCEDISI SHABANGU

Tell us more about the production.
The play tells the story of Sizwe Banzi, an ordinary man from King Williams Town, who arrives in Port Elizabeth in search of fortune. One night he becomes a victim of a peri-urban raid and he gets forced out of Port Elizabeth within three days. But Sizwe is not an educated man with regards to the ways of the city. He doesn’t understand what is really going on. His friend Zola sends him to a friend called Buntu (who will hide him for a few days), before putting him on a train back to King Williams Town. Sizwe Banzi refuses to leave because there’s nothing for him back home. He can’t face his wife and four children. So they come across a dead body of Robert Zwelinzima who has the right passbook and the right stamp. Sizwe Banzi is then forced to make a decision that will cost him his identity.

Why do you think the production is still relevant for this time in SA
Issues of identity are timeless. We still face these problems globally today. The situation with Zimbabweans in our country is a perfect start. In Europe and America it is an equally huge issue. Another thing (which is important to me) is that Sizwe Banzi is not a political figure. He is just a man who is tangled in the web of apartheid and its effects on the lives of ordinary people. So once again it is a lesson to our people to be reminded that this rainbow nation was built on so much.

Tell us about your character and how you went about realising the role. What unique qualities do you think you’re bringing to your character?
I play Sizwe Banzi. I play myself in the situation back in 1972. The quality l bring is Mncedisi Shabangu; someone who is not trying to be Dr Winston Ntshona, who helped to create the original role. I would fail dismally trying to be him. So my soul and heart has its own truth. It is that honesty and truth that l bring to the role which makes my rendition unique and special to me.

What has it been like working with John Kani at the helm, especially knowing that he starred in the original ‘Sizwe Banzi’ so many years ago?
Working with Dr Kani is a blessing to any actor in the world. Not only does he bring wisdom and experience, but also a rare dignified understanding of the world. Yes, he created and co-wrote the play, but he doesn’t want us to do what they did. He is interested in what we can do beyond that. The luxury of working with the Doc (as we affectionately call him) is that he has achieved enormous success and received several accolades and still he is always willing to help young actors. He is helping to shape future generations, which confirms that theatre would be safe in our hands.

Tell us about your co-star Atandwa Kani and how you guys went about establishing a workable chemistry in the play.
Well, Atandwa and I didn’t have to slaughter a goat to make our chemistry work. It is the love and respect that we have for each other that has created an easy chemistry between us. We met long before this production. He has watched me perform in plays over the years and l have watched him perform and develop too. He loved my work and made a role model out of me, as l was charmed by his presence on and off the stage. So by the time we met to start working on this play, we were already highly thirsty to work together. Atandwa will remain one of South Africa’s rare talents. He works very hard and his work ethic is his strength. Some might judge him because he is Dr Kani’s son, but let me assure you those who know him will agree, he is his own man. I love him openly.

* Book at Computicket.