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Sizwe Banzi Is Dead

by Dave Durbach / 02.02.2011

Arguably the most famous of all South African plays, Sizwe Banzi is Dead has over the past 40 years enjoyed numerous successful runs in London and New York, won Tony Awards in the mid-70s, been translated into French and performed in the Middle East. It recently returned to the Market Theatre in Joburg.

The play opens with a man, Styles, talking of his days in Babylon working at the Ford motor plant in PE, and his subsequent decision to open his own photographic studio – to help people capture the moment at a time when photos were a rare and valuable commodity. Styles’ reminiscing is cut short by a visit from a man who reluctantly gives his name as Robert Zwelinzima. He asks Styles to take photos of him for a letter he’s writing to his wife. As it turns out, the man’s real name is Sizwe Banzi. Apartheid pass laws have forced him to return to King William’s Town, unless he is willing to bend the rules. As he explains in his letter, one drunken night he and his landlord Buntu find a dead body. Buntu persuades Sizwe to steal his pass book and assume the identity of the dead man, Robert Zwelinzima, if he ever wants to live and work where he wishes.

As generations of South Africans who have seen or studied the play will tell you, Sizwe Banzi is Dead exposes the absurdity of the apartheid laws. More generally, it asks questions about the significance of a name in the identity of an individual.

Veteran Arthur Malepo plays a tragicomic title character. Omphile Molusi plays both the gregarious snapper Styles and the streetsmart landlord Buntu. The man tasked with bringing Sizwe Banzi back to life, so to speak, is director Monageng Vice Motshabi, who sat down with Mahala to talk about the new play…

Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, Vice was careful to keep the play’s text and structure in its original form. “The only thing I did was bring in my interpretation of the characters – particularly Styles, who in the older version with John Kani is quite different. I tried to bring him closer to the audience, to humanise him a bit more. It’s only in the subtle details that it is different, in the interpretation of what a line means. That’s what can be found in this version.”

Sizwe Banzi is Dead

With Banzi’s character, Vice explains, “I tried to make him different from the original. But it’s a bit of a struggle when you’re dealing with an actor who is older. I suppose I did as much as I could, but I don’t feel like I succeeded in taking him to what my full vision was. We were constantly going back and forth. When we didn’t agree we’d have to compromise. Whereas Omphile was more open. Being young he was willing to go for something completely different.

“We tried so many things before we settled on anything. The most challenging thing was to know the difference between Omphile’s two characters. The way it’s written, sometimes they say the same line, express themselves in the same way. You’re left to imagine what the difference is. You have to bring in what isn’t in the text, to make it your own.

“It can be difficult, because Kani and Ntshona could get away with anything,” Vice continues. “It’s easy for them, it’s their play. Because John Kani is such a big person, he can simply stand there and say these words in a beautiful way – he doesn’t have to ‘play’ a character per se. But for us we have to find those subtleties. It was challenging. In the final week before we opened, we changed everything we had decided on. That’s when the actors started to settle and it started to look right for me.”

Though the original duo haven’t seen this version of the play yet, the director isn’t seeking their approval. “I’m interested in what they think, because they made the play, but I’m not particularly nervous about it. We’ve tried it with lots of different audiences, people who’ve never seen it before, who didn’t bring the burden of having seen it with John. Those are the people we’re making theatre for anyway. We’re not making theatre for other artists, so they can approve or not approve. We’re making theatre for people who will find meaning, who’ll take something from the story itself.”

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead

For a play that delves so deeply into the apartheid condition, there is a risk that audiences today may struggle to find relevance. “Of course the context of the play is apartheid, pass laws, all of that. But the humanity of the story is key,” explains Vice. “For me it’s just a story of surviving. We still deal with the system of government standing in our way and making things difficult, and we all have to find a way of surviving. So for me it represents the story of a man surviving against the odds. What those odds are can be anything. In this case it’s apartheid, but you can look at it now – someone who comes from Zimbabwe to this country may be feeling like Sizwe every now and then because he has to carry papers and all of that. So I feel the story transcends time. It moves beyond the context and the historical aspect.”

After this current run of Sizwe Banzi is Dead comes to an end on 20 February, there’s a good chance it could come to Cape Town immediately afterwards, at the new Fugard Theatre in District Six.

Sunjata - Market Theatre

Also on at the Market, although far less recommended, Sunjata is a take on the age-old myth of ancient Mali passed down by generations of griots. A prophecy is told that an ugly woman will give the king the son he so desperately needs, and that the boy will go on to defeat rival factions and unite Mali. Being adapted and translated by the award-winning James Ngcobo does little to distract from the fact that it’s a story we’ve all heard a hundred times before, with little to set it apart.

Told by a troupe of six actors, all playing multiple characters, the acting is too intense, with melodramatic shouting and interpretive dance the order of the day rather than straight-forward dialogue or actual plot development. This performance fails to distract from the simplistic, unoriginal story that unfolds just as the prophecy foretold, while paying minimal attention to the actual life and impact of Sunjata on African history, thus providing few surprises and little food for thought. The play culminates in a heated argument between a shirt and a hat – nuff said. Nevertheless, it was showing to a full house of soap stars and cultured Joburgers, many of whom seemed to enjoy the show.

Sizwe Banzi is Dead runs at the Market’s Laager Theatre until 20 February. Sunjata is on at the Barney Simon Theatre until 13 March. And showing at the Main Theatre is Hugh Masekela’s Songs of Migration, now starring Gloria Bosman, until 13 February.

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