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Sizwe Banzi Is Dead
Sizwe Banzi Is Dead tells two stories. Both of them take place in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The introductory, story is about a photographer named Styles (John Kani) who recounts his journey of enlightenment.
Styles first reads the day's lead stories from a newspaper, goes on to recount what happened the day the high and mighty Henry Ford II came to visit the lowly workers at one of his automobile plant where Styles was working, and ends up explaining how he came to realize that he is "tired of working for the white man. . .tired of being another man's tool."
With newly acquired determination, Styles decides to take hold of his life and fulfills his dream by opening his own studio. In the studio, Styles photographs couples and huge families. Kani plays all the parts, often to great comic effect. Finally a man who identifies himself as Robert Zwalisi (Winston Nitshona) walks into the studio and asks to have his picture taken. After a bit of good-natured banter Styles exits and Zwalisi tells his own story.
It turns out Zwalisi is not the man's real name. He is actually Sizwe Banzi, and he is working in Cape Elizabeth, despite not having the proper papers, thanks to the cunning of his friend Buntu (Kani). Exactly what happened is revealed with equal portions of pathos and humor.
The genius of the play, however, is how the two stories merge into the central theme: The truly free man creates his own identity. Adversity makes us strong. Righteousness and love will eventually triumph.
The play is directed by Aubrey Sekhabhi, artistic director and deputy CEO of the State Theatre in Pretoria. Sekhabhi wisely relies on a minimal set (a table, chairs, a board covered with photos, a tripod) and Mannie Manim's lighting to create a space for the two brilliant actors. Then he lets them enchant the audience.
Kani and Nitshona are master performers. They are clowns and tragedians. Kani interacts with the audience, bringing people onto the stage to show them Styles photos. He is teasing and gracious. The scene where Banzi and Buntu, having confirmed the hopelessness of Banzi's situation, which makes a black man's only home the grave, go out to drink themselves to death is funny in the best tradition of dark comedy.
This production marks the return of Kani and Nitshona to BAM where in 1973 they revived The Island, also about South Africa during apartheid. It is also the last time the two actors will be performing the play. Don't miss it. The opportunity will never come again.
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