SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD is genuine work of theater. An authentic, authoritative look at a shameful period of South African history, it skillfully camouflages the importance of the indignities it exposes by keeping its characters and overall tone amiable and congenial.
Two related stories are told, almost in shaggy-dog style. They entertain on their surface, but within the mostly lighthearted dialogue, where motives and ambitions are included almost incidentally, authors John Kani, Winston Ntshona, and Athol Fugard searingly tell you the unimaginable hardships blacks faced under the subjugating, segregationist policies of apartheid. Two men, Sizwe Banzi and a photographer named Styles each find their way to something they can call manhood in “Sizwe Banzi is Dead,” but it is the reasons and repercussions of their journeys in rejecting the label of “boy” the ruling class would cast on them that make SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD so poignant.
The production directed by John Kani at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre shows how amusement, enlightenment, anger, and unconscionable history can fuse in one work. Written more than 40 years ago, and revived more than 20 years after the fall of apartheid, Kani’s work with Ntshona and Fugard is fresh and meaningful. Kani’s staging features a remarkable performance by his son, Atandwa Kani, who brings out every nuance of pain and rebellion masked within the sunny ebullience of Styles. Onstage alone for the first 20 minutes, Atandwa Kani tells the story of a man who had a secure job with the Ford factory in Port Elizabeth, but gave up his post to open his own business as a photographer.
“I am a man,” Styles victoriously declares. As he speaks, you understand what he has defeated to have the little independence he can muster. You realize the risks he takes on a daily basis and how he copes with reality by bending to rules and conventions when necessary.
Later, Kani takes on a different role, captures the sincere wisdom of disgruntled but equally observant and self-preserving Buntu, a man who works in a textile factory in the same type of position as Styles held for Ford. Buntu is asked to come the aid of Sizwe Banzi (Mncedisi Shabangu), a man from the mandated black townships who had the bad luck to have his identity book stamped with a mark that prevents him from living in or working in the city of Port Elizabeth, where he needs to be to make a living.
Buntu does not have a lot of choices. He knows there are positions open at the textile factory, but he can’t in good conscience recommend a man whose passbook is out of order, a grand sin among the potentates who govern South Africa and a blot his employers would never tolerate. Buntu does solve Sizwe’s problem, but the way he does it, which owes more than a little to good luck, is as harrowing as it is uplifting. His plan illustrates the worst of what a black man in South Africa must do to make something good and worthwhile happen.