Sizwe Banzi is Dead (Syracuse Stage – 2015)

Sizwe Banzi is Dead

Sizwe Banzi is DeadImagine being put in jail because of a rave review in the New York Times. That’s what happened to John Kani and Winston Ntshona in 1975. They’d just shared the Best Actor prize at the 1975 Tony Awards for their performances in Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island. The Times declared their work a “powerful political statement,” prompting the South African government to arrest them for treason when they returned home. They spent 23 days in prisons 120 miles apart and were only released because of worldwide protests by the artistic community. Imagine if Common and John Legend had been arrested after performing and winning an award at the 2015 Oscars. Easier to imagine: that some in our society would have approved. The same John Kani directed Syracuse Stage’s production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, although he retired the piece in 2008. I’m glad it didn’t stay retired – last night’s production is the best theater I’ve seen at Syracuse Stage since Caroline, or Change in 2012. Kani’s son Atandwa Kani has taken over the principal roles of Styles/Buntu. Mncedisi Shabangu plays the titular Sizwe. Both are brilliant. The piece opens on a minimally decorated stage. Two tables, a chair, an easel, and a camera on a tripod. Kani holds the first half of the production on his own, commanding attention by telling stories. Too often in theater, sets are constructed and costumes purchased and effects generated, and we forget the essential purpose, the reason it all exists, is to simply tell stories. As the photographer Styles, Kani begins with a newspaper, house lights still bright on the audience. He reads various headlines and muses on them humorously, but (this is key) not from a perspective the audience immediately recognizes. The house lights fade and Styles tells a story from his time on the assembly line at a Ford Automotive plant in South Africa, when Henry Ford II visited and every effort was made to polish the factory and its workers. Some of us know this kind of story – the idiocy of capitalism. Kani is kinetic as he impersonates the bosses, the workers, the assembly line machines, and Henry Ford II Himself. It’s a tour de force of storytelling, and Kani is only getting started. Next, he tells about leaving the factory and setting himself up in business as a portrait photographer. He invites audience members onto the stage to look at photographs on his easel; normally I dislike audience participation (it can be a lazy performer’s easy out), but here the inclusion is necessary to drive home a point of the play – we are a community, we are not here only to be entertained, we are implicated. Mncedisi Shabangu enters about midway through, and we first know him as Robert Zwelinzima, another of Style’s stories. John Kani has said the inspiration for the play began with a photograph of a man holding both a pipe and a cigarette, and we see that scene recreated in Style’s retelling. During this middle section, something very subtle happens, revealing what I suspect is playwright Winston Ntshona’s biggest influence on the play. Robert Zwelinzima wants his picture taken, to send home to his wife. He is forced to work far from their family, but he will be returning to visit during the Christmas holiday. So Style’s story becomes another’s story, as Shabangu’s Zwelinzima gradually takes over the narrative, and Kani in turn becomes the character Buntu. The narrative transformation is understated, and elegantly accomplished via simple lighting that might be applied in any theater. The humor fades as we learn Zwelinzima’s history. As the story becomes darker, we see the indignities of apartheid on those affected. In a bravura sequence, my favorite of the evening, Kani impersonates a police officer, casually interrogating Shabangu’s character. Unable to find a legal means of further demeaning his target, he casually tosses Zwelinzima/Banzi’s passbook on the ground, three feet away. That simple gesture encapsulates the contempt one race holds for another, for absolutely no reason. As a member of the audience, and of the human race, I wanted to throttle Kani at that moment. Which is exactly the point. A quibble. The costume design, credited to director John Kani, involves white suits on both actors. The stage lighting is bright enough that the white suits distract and sometimes blind the audience to the expressive faces of both actors. I wished for shades of gray, or brown; the material does not demand white. (If some think it does, I’d argue that’s too much on the nose.) Another otherwise lovely scene, washed in blue under amber streetlights, has a dead spot downstage center, where too much important action takes place. It could have been easily changed, and should have been. Sizwe Banzi is Dead is amazing, world-changing theater. The auditorium was only half full last night; it should have been sold out weeks in advance. You have three opportunities left to see this production before it closes Sunday, March 15. Please give these performers the honor of your attention. You probably won’t be arrested, but you might be shaken from complacency.