PASS BOOK OPPRESSION: Buntu (Atandwa Kani, left) helps Sizwe Bansi (Mncedisi Shabangu) survive in apartheid South Africa through taking another man’s pass book and giving up his own identity, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” (1972), playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 15.
“You have to understand,” Styles, in his photo studio in the black township of New Brighton outside Port Elizabeth, South Africa, tells us, “we have nothing except ourselves. We own nothing except ourselves. This government and its laws leaves us with nothing except ourselves. Even when we die, we leave nothing behind except the memories of ourselves. That is my job.”
As the culmination of his genial, chatty opening monologue, Styles’ comments about the role of the photographer strike central themes of identity, who we are as human beings, and appearance vs. reality in Sizwe Bansi is Dead. Created by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona in 1972 at the mid-point of South Africa’s four and a half decades of apartheid government, the play shifts back and forth in tone between low-key, light, humorous and intensely, painfully serious. It delivers a scathing indictment of the harsh system of racial discrimination and segregation imposed by the white South African government on its majority dark-skinned population.
Seeing this production of Sizwe Bansi, at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, more than 20 years after the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, is a different experience from seeing the original on Broadway, where Mr. Kani and Mr. Ntshona shared Tony Awards for best actor, after its 1972 opening in South Africa and subsequent run in London. I remember feeling the political tension at that time. There was the sense that this controversial play was doing something dangerous. Mr. Kani, who played the role of Styles in the original and has directed this production with his son Atandwa Kani as Styles here, and Mr. Ntshona had, surprisingly in 1974, been allowed to travel outside of South Africa, but only with the official designation as servants to Mr. Fugard. After a subsequent performance of the play in South Africa, Mr. Kani and Mr. Ntshona were jailed for 23 days.
Unsparing in its detail of the world of apartheid South Africa, Sizwe Bansi presents a vivid, memorable picture of three characters, played by the two actors. But, though this production may have lost its specific political immediacy after 43 years, it reveals the rich universality and timelessness of human beings struggling to assert their identity against the oppressive forces of a society that would deny them that right. Along with blacks in apartheid South Africa, think of blacks in the segregated U.S. South (The recently released movie “Selma” comes readily to mind.) or of recent demands that African-American lives in Ferguson, New York and elsewhere matter and must be recognized and treated with dignity, or of other oppressed peoples throughout the world.
In the spirit and style of South African township theater, sets and costumes (designed by John Kani), props and staging are minimal. The two seasoned, brilliantly captivating actors create the world of Sizwe Bansi with their actions and their words. John Kani’s direction is focused, intelligent and on-target. The pacing is swift and nuanced, and the 90-minute show holds its audience from start to finish.
Atandwa Kani’s Styles is a dynamically personable, appealing character. In his opening monologue he reflects shrewdly, pointedly on events of the world and he describes working for the Ford Motor Company in South Africa, preparing the plant for a visit from the big boss, telling his white employers what they want to hear. But Styles has since persevered to surmount some of the bureaucratic and financial obstacles that the apartheid society placed in his way, and he has acquired his own tiny photography studio. With his irrepressible affability, his sharp sense of humor and his broad smile, he readily wins over the audience, even welcomes two audience members on stage to see his photos.
People come to him for passbook photos, family photos—selfies of 20th century South Africa?—in the hopes of creating and asserting their identities and preserving those identities into the future. “This is a strong-room of dreams,” he boasts. “The dreamers, mightiful…These are the people that would have been forgotten with their dreams, their hopes, their aspirations if it wasn’t for me, Styles.”
Sizwe Bansi (Mncedisi Shabangu) enters the photo studio, dressed in a white double-breasted suit and fedora, with both pipe and cigarette, seeking a single snapshot to send to his wife in King William’s Town to show her how he is doing. But, clearly, he is unsure of his own identity. His suit seems too large for him, and he is uncomfortable as he hesitates before telling Styles his name is “Robert Zwelinzima.” In the form of a letter to his wife, who had to stay in far-off King William’s Town with their four children while Sizwe went to find work in Port Elizabeth, Sizwe tells the audience the story of his transformation. “Sizwe Bansi, in a manner of speaking, is dead.”
As he tells his story, illustrating so dramatically the destructive effects of the pass book laws, the scene changes in a flashback, and we observe Sizwe’s struggles with the repressive conditions of living as a black man under the South African apartheid government. Soon after Sizwe arrived in New Brighton outside Port Elizabeth, where he stayed with a friend, the police raided his friend’s house and put a stamp in Sizwe’s pass book demanding that he leave Port Elizabeth immediately. He could have found work in Port Elizabeth, but would surely have been arrested and either jailed or forcibly returned to King William’s Town where he could not find work to support his family except in the dangerous, back-breaking job of mining gold and diamonds.
Sizwe moves into hiding with a man named Buntu (also played by Atandwa Kani), who explains to him the harsh pass book system, but is unable to help him until, late at night, after a drunken visit to the local bar (the shebeen), Buntu and Sizwe come upon the body of a dead man in an alley. The dead man’s pass book is in order. Sizwe can take the book, assume the identity of Robert Zwelinzima, then live and work in Port Elizabeth.
In a world that treats people as pass book numbers rather than human beings, the decision for Sizwe, Buntu argues, is a simple, practical one. But Sizwe, confronting the existential dilemma of what it means to be a human being, protests, “I don’t want to lose my name…How do I live as another man’s ghost?” Echoing Shylock’s angry declaration of his humanity as a Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Sizwe asserts his pride and dignity as a man: “Am I not a human being? I’ve got eyes to see. I’ve got ears. I’ve got a head to think good things. Am I not a human being?”
The final scene of the play returns to Styles’ photo studio and the present, as Sizwe, now Robert Zwelinzima, smiles for the camera.
“Survival can involve betrayal of everything—beliefs, values, ideals—except Life itself,” Mr. Fugard wrote in his Notebooks 1960-1977. In Sizwe Bansi is Dead the title character lives in a world where, to survive, he must give up his very name and identity as a human being. It’s difficult to imagine a more powerful, moving depiction of a racist society that inflicts such devastating, pernicious effects on individuals and families.
McCarter Theatre’s production of “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead,” co-produced with the Market Theatre of Johannesburg and Syracuse Stage, will run through February 15 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre at 91 University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org for tickets and further information.