“Sizwe Banzi is Dead”
Who: Syracuse Stage, Co-Produced with The Market Theatre (Johannesburg, South Africa) and McCarter Theatre Center (Princeton, NJ)
Where: 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13210
When: Through March 15
Review by Sarah Hope
With Sizwe Banzi is Dead, Syracuse Stage presents an intensely moving experience for those both familiar and unfamiliar with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Originally mounted at the world famous Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, Sizwe Banzi is Dead tells the story of one man under the thumb of a racist system that relegates him to second class citizenship. In South Africa, for nearly half a century (1950-1994), the ruling National Party government operated under apartheid, or “apartness,” affording different rights to people of different races — races classified by arbitrary, confusing, and often subjective markers such as skin hue and area of origin. “Black” people were forced to carry pass books, documents much like passports that detailed their status and dictated which laws they were subject to — laws to which other races (“white” and “coloured”) were not subject. Sizwe Banzi’s fight was a fight many black people faced, and still face: the fight for human dignity. In John Kani, Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona’s groundbreaking 1972 work of protest theater, the struggle is presented in all its ferocity, with layers of meaning that compound until the audience, too, feels the weight of apartheid on their shoulders.
The play begins in a portrait studio in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where an enthusiastic man named Styles tells how he became photographer. In a lengthy monologue, which spans the first half of the 90-minute performance, Styles takes us into apartheid South Africa. Without ever leaving the portrait studio, we are transported through his telling to a Ford factory on the day of a visit from Henry Ford himself, then back to the portrait studio to see why the work of a photographer is so important in a world where some people are not treated as human.
Styles is portrayed by the superb Atandwa Kani. Atandwa is the son of John Kani, a co-creator of Sizwe, the Tony Award-winning originator of the role of Styles/Buntu, and the director of the current production. Using the full range of his body motion, effusive hand gestures, sound effects, and a brilliant command of language (English, Xhosa, and Afrikaans), the younger Kani delivers the story of Styles’ journey and lays the foundation for our understanding of the hardships of apartheid with a force and commitment that left me winded just watching him. The elder Kani’s direction propels his son across the stage, constructing smooth, almost visible changes in setting, in spite of the sparse studio (two chairs and a table comprise nearly the entire set).
The younger Kani carries his kinetic energy over into his role in the second half, where he plays Buntu, a friend of Sizwe Banzi’s who helps him recover his dignity as best he can. Banzi, who faces forced relocation and bankruptcy because of apartheid, is played by dynamic South African actor Mncedisi Shabangu. Shabangu’s physical comedy is as delightfully understated as his anger is cogent. Together Kani and Shabangu, first in a private conversation and then in a drunken street scene, build layers of meaning frosted with dark criticisms that reach to the depths of human experience. Their energy pops and swells like a bonfire, growing to such heights that in moments of stark silence — especially in the play’s final moments — the air in the theater feels electrified.
In many African cultures, folk tales and collective histories are passed down through the practice of “orature,” or oral literature. Similarly, “sankofa,” the practice of reflecting on the past and seeking guidance from the spirits of ancestors, is a culturally cherished method for coping with hardship. It is sobering that, in a time of increased public struggle over the way that black people in America are treated by police and government, Syracuse Stage, in collaboration with the Market Theatre and McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ, has revived this 30-year-old play and invited us to look back at the struggle of apartheid, and to feel its weight. Michael Brown is dead. Trayvon Martin is dead. Tamir Rice is dead. How does one build a sense of dignity in the face of a society where racism is hidden, but still very much endemic? Maybe Sizwe Banzi has the answer: total reinvention.