South African playwright Athol Fugard treats the violent oppression of apartheid in his plays as a loathsome fact of life. His plays do not teem with bitter anger, but smack instead of critical fortitude: examining with compassion and introspection how his South African characters struggle to press on under the force of a racist political regime that once seemed indestructible. In Sizwe Banzi is Dead, now receiving a vigorous production under the direction of Kani at the McCarter Theatre, co-writers Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona are particularly interested in the struggle for self-definition and happiness – concepts that were systematically denied black men under apartheid – and begin with the premise that the search for identity and happiness are basic human instincts that cannot be squelched by rigorous juridical stricture.
The play opens in the photography studio of a man named Styles (Atandwa Kani) who spends much of the play’s long first scene gleefully and animatedly monologuing to the audience about his life in South Africa. That glee comes from the fact that after years of toiling in the local Ford plant, he has finally been granted permission to open a photography studio where he feels he is able to fulfill dreams. Styles lives under the weight of apartheid oppression like every other black South African, but his monologue is indicative of the play’s treatment of at least one potential response to such oppression: finding a niche where one can be happy. Styles makes jokes at the expense of his former white bosses and alludes to the oppression that runs like a current through everyday life, but he chooses to dwell instead on matters that make him happy. The decision seems effective for Styles, although the play will not overlook the painful oppression that exists for Styles just outside his studio door.
The second half of Sizwe Banzi is Dead takes on a much more solemn political tone with the introduction of a man who calls himself Robert (Mncedisi Shabangu), who seeks a picture of himself to send home with a letter to his wife (strict rules denoting where black South Africans were eligible for work often required families to live apart). The gregariousness of Styles is gone, and in its place is some very frank and earnest discussion about the predicament of black South Africans. Never does the conversation seem preachy: instead, it is a forthright discussion between two men who struggle to respond to the fact-of-life oppression that dictates much of their lives. Robert’s passbook, the notorious identification book that apartheid forced black citizens to carry everywhere, and its symbolism are the topic of conversation, but much more about the quest for self-identification and the potential for happiness weaves its way throughout the discussion.
Directed by one of the cowriters and starring two South African performers, this production carries a welcome air of authenticity, crackling with the constant struggle of black South Africans to carve out a sustainable place of personal and collective existence. Atandwa Kani (son of director, and set and costume designer John) is at once tireless and brilliant in one of the most demandingly loquacious roles in modern theater, and Shabangu, as his more laconic counterpart, makes very clear the many interior debates and uncertainties smoldering under the surface of his character. Together, the performers and the sharply written play succeed in painting an empathetic portrait of the daily struggle to find some sense of sustainable identity under apartheid.