On the BAM Harvey stage, Styles (John Kani), an elderly man, his hair and beard dappled white, flips through the newspaper. Verbose and sociable, he comments on nearly every story—from weather reports to accounts of domestic violence to reports of a bishop’s visit. He has choice words for an article discussing an expansion at a car plant.
For six years, Styles has served on the assembly line at a South African branch of Ford (as did Kani). In a bravura monologue, Kani dashes around the stage playing Henry Ford II, various foremen, a funeral director, and a 29-member family. Styles reveals how he could no longer work as “bloody monkey” for the white man. He opened his own photography studio and now captures on film “the history that the writers of the great books always forget.”
Kani, fellow actor Winston Ntshona, and playwright Athol Fugard devised Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, of which Styles’s monologue forms the first portion, in 1972. (The second part concerns a man who trades identity cards with a corpse in order to gain employment.) In 1974, the show opened on Broadway and earned a pair of Tony Awards; in 1976, the South African government arrested the performers for treason and sentenced them to solitary confinement. (A series of protests earned their release after several weeks.) This revival then, comes freighted with much history, and also the threat of irrelevance, since apartheid, as it was practiced in the ’70s, no longer exists.
But while the play provides a record of a particular time and locale, it also functions as an outcry against the practices of dehumanization—and eloquently captures the universal desire to find and hold one’s place in the world. Thirty-six years after that debut performance, Kani and Ntshona still stand tall on the stage. Confidently and energetically, they play off each other’s rhythm, gait, and words. After the performance on April 19, Sizwe Banzi will indeed be dead—the actors have elected to retire the piece. In the meantime, Sizwe, as well as Kani and Ntshona, remains superbly, indelibly alive.