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NY Theater Reviews

Winston Ntshona and John Kani/PH: Harold Gess


By Sandy MacDonald

Radical in its day, this 36-year-old classic from South Africa still resonates with current audiences.

It's always a pleasure to observe a man who enjoys his work, and in Aubrey Sekhabi's deftly directed revival of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, that pleasure is doubled. South African master actor John Kani - who, along with Athol Fugard, developed the play in 1972 with co-actor Winston Ntshona (it earned them each a 1976 Tony for Best Actor) - reprises the role of Mr. Styles, a small-time Port Elizabeth photographer who revels in capturing the images of people whose names cannot be found in your history books." We get to share in Mr. Styles's utter delight in his chosen profession we also get to savor Kani's gift for mesmeric story-telling.

This man is captivating just reading newspaper headlines - which is the way the play starts. He's riveting as he recalls his six years working in a Ford factory (like a bloody monkey), and recalling the day when some Ford scion deigned to visit. The grinding assembly-line routine (Kani mimics it brilliantly, with sonorous sound effects) is all in the past now. Mr. Styles proudly escorts a couple of audience members up to the bulletin board where his current handiwork - including a 29-member family portrait - is displayed. Soon,he'll lavish his surfeit of joy - plus a trace of hustler's wiles -on a country bumpkin (Ntshona, looking Buster Keatonish in a squashed hat and oversize white suit), who comes seeking a portrait to send home to his wife and children.

It's at this point that a seeming idyll starts to unravel. We learn why this Robert Zwelinzima has the air of a man at once defeated and new-made. Backtracking chronologically, Kani resurfaces as Buntu, a neighborhood activist who - in the course of a drunken odyssey (the only portion of the 90-minute play that drags) - finds a way for a marked man to extricate himself from the byzantine passbook process whereby the white ruling class keeps the native population firmly under its thumb.

Though the play got its enactors jailed for treason when they took it to rural areas in the wake of their Broadway run, it makes its points gently, with heaps of universally accessible humor. Who'd have guessed back in 1972 that, within four decades, Sizwe Banzi would hold such resonance for a U.S. population facing the covert erosion of its own civil liberties?