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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Sizwe Banzi is Dead

Am I not a human being? — Sizwe Banzi

Sizwe Banzi
Left to Right: Mncedisi Shabangu and Atandwa Kani (photo credit: Ruphin Coudyzer)
South Africa's Market Theatre's recent acclaimed revival of Athol Fugard's (written in collaboration with John Kani and Winston Ntshona) Sizwe Banzi is Dead has been brought to the McCarter Theatre in a co-production with Syracuse Stage. What a gift and what a treat it will be for audiences at both theaters.

Kani, who shared the 1972 -73 Best Actor Tony Award with Ntshona, is the director of this newly envisioned production that now stars Kani's talented son Atandwa Kani in the two roles he recently played at the Market Theater. The title role is also played by its terrific Market Theater interpreter Mncedisi Shabangu.

Consider the daring of how the celebrated and prolific white South African playwright Fugard along with collaborating black actors Kani and Ntshona to have created this play that when segregation was still in force exposed the inane bureaucracy and restrictions that kept blacks from traveling and from finding employment. That they were imprisoned for performing their roles is a chilling bit of history. Forty years later, we can still respond to the plentiful humor as well as the amount of pathos and poignancy integrated into this cleverly politicized ninety-minute comedy.

The plot, as deployed by its three beautifully imagined characters, reveals a distinctly comedic disrespect for the authoritarian restrictions of the time. After a minor skirmish with the police, Sizwe Banzi (Mncedisi Shabangu) is told he may no longer stay or seek employment in Port Elizabeth but must return to his home in King William's Town. A plan is hatched to help the desperate and distraught Banzi by Styles (Atandwa Kani), a photographer with whom he strikes up an acquaintance, and his friend Buntu (also played by Kani) who is harboring Banzi. After a night of heavy drinking, Banzi and Buntu come upon a dead body in an alley with proper passbook, identification and employment papers. Have they found a way to beat the system?

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, the amusingly self-congratulatory, self-employed photographer who is exceedingly 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 is so proud of his photos that he invites members of the audience to come up on the stage — his studio — to get a closer look at them. He is equally persuasive and amusing as Buntu, the fearless chap whom Styles has aligned with Sizwe (a beautifully self-effacing performance by Shabangu.)

Although South Africa is no longer in the grip of apartheid, we are today able to look back at these endearing and persevering characters and consider their ghastly social and political status with perhaps just 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. For more plot details please see Curtainup's 2008 review at BAM

Sizwe Banzi is Dead By Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona Directed by John Kani

Cast: Atandwa Kani (Styles and Buntu), Mncedisi Shabangu (Sizwe)
Set and Costume Design: John Kani
Associate Producer/Lighting Designer: Mannie Manim
Resident Stage Manager: Cheryl Mintz
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes no intermission
Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center
91 University Place, Princeton
(609) - 258 - 2787
Tickets: ($25.00 to $70.00)
From 01/16/15 Opened 01/23/15 Ends 02/15/15
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 01/25/15
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