Sizwe Banzi Is Dead
Sizwe Banzi Is Dead Credit: Michael Brosilow

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead Court Theatre

It’s hard to believe the South African authorities even allowed Sizwe Banzi Is Dead to open in Cape Town in 1972. In retrospect, the play looks like a riot waiting to erupt.

The apartheid system was then 24 years old, though discriminatory legislation went back much further. Apartheid prohibited people classified as Black from voting, owning property, choosing their jobs, or living in white areas without special permits. They had to carry passbooks—including birth certificate, marriage license, work permit, and drivers license—or risk imprisonment. And concerted opposition to the system had been banned by the Unlawful Organizations Act of 1960. In a word, black South Africans had no rights, and to speak up about it was to break the law.

Yet this two-man play, written by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona (and originally performed by Kani and Ntshona) asserts blacks’ outlawed humanity even as it demonstrates how worthless their lives could be under apartheid. At one point a character strips off his clothes and shouts, “I’m a man. I’ve got eyes to see. I’ve got ears to listen when people talk. I’ve got a head to think good things. What’s wrong with me?” Not surprisingly both Kani and Ntshona did jail time for their performances.

The play is primarily concerned with the fate of the title character, an illiterate laborer stranded in white New Brighton with an out-of-date passbook and no work permit. While Banzi naively imagines he might find a job gardening or selling potatoes, his friend, Mr. Buntu, understands the gravity of the situation. Hoping to lift Banzi’s spirits, Buntu takes him drinking at a local nightclub, where he’s addressed as “Mr. Banzi” for the first time and begins to think he may deserve better than derision and scorn. The spirit of rebellion comes to life in him.

After they’ve left the club, Buntu goes into an alley to relieve himself, and—in an appallingly harsh metaphor for life in apartheid South Africa—realizes that the pile of garbage he’s pissing on is actually the bloodied corpse of a black man. Buntu pulls the man’s passbook from his pocket and discovers it contains everything Banzi needs to give himself a new lease on life. He suggests Banzi take it.

To save himself Banzi must not only give up his identity—along with the surname he shares with his wife and four children—but also steal that of the dead man, whom he considers, like all black South Africans, his brother.

That’s the sort of moral dilemma that makes for great drama—and for the lion’s share of Court Theatre’s 90-minute production, greatness is unmistakably in evidence. With the simplest of means—two chairs, a table, a patch of dirt defining the playing area—director Ron OJ Parson creates a stage world that’s truthful yet not at all literal, allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks. Parson builds the action with exquisite precision to a harrowing conclusion, at once triumphant and despairing.

Allen Gilmore and Chiké Johnson give meticulous, poised performances as Banzi and Buntu, compellingly evoking the proud, wounded psyches of their characters—a particularly impressive feat considering the nonnaturalistic style of the script, which requires both men to spend a lot of time directly addressing and even interacting with the audience. (Gilmore’s drunken meandering through the house, trying to get all the “beautiful people” to join him onstage, is one of the craftiest bits of audience participation I’ve ever seen: he woos us while making it clear he’s not going to make us do anything embarrassing). The actors never let the audience forget the realities of apartheid even as they draw on the variety shows popular in South African black townships. They imbue their performances with a touch of clowning reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.

Set designer Jack Magaw adds poignancy to the evening by placing old black-and-white photos of black South Africans—many displaying their passbooks, as though desperate to prove their existence—along the back wall of the stage. Those faces watch over the action, recalling all the broken lives Banzi and Buntu represent.

Parson’s production falters only in the opening scene, an extended monologue by a photographer named Styles, who reads through the day’s newspaper headlines and tells stories from his own life, mostly about trying to find some sort of dignified work. Johnson plays Styles with an unmodulated, hypercharged broadness, turning the character into a cartoon. The performance is antithetical to his nuanced, carefully observed portrayal of Buntu, and the exhausting, anomalous half-hour scene conveys little about the world of the play. But when Banzi finally wanders into Styles’s studio to have his picture taken—for his new passbook, perhaps—the show falls beautifully into place, and the power of the story that unfolds more than compensates for the false start.

The lesson Banzi learns in the course of the play is one of the bleakest the theater has to offer: he must give up any shred of pride and reduce himself to nothing in order to survive. I can’t imagine what black audiences felt in 1972 as his fate unspooled before them; it’s still difficult to watch nearly 40 years later, knowing how far skin color still goes toward determining worth in Western culture. The talented team behind this show pulls no punches in delivering the script’s brutal truth.

Ironically, the program for the show continues the unfortunate tradition of reducing black men to something less than their white counterparts. Although Kani and Ntshona cowrote the piece with Fugard—indeed, in the original production, the entire first scene was improvised by Kani each night—only Fugard gets an author’s bio.