The Island (1972) and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (1972), recently staged at the Joburg Theatre under the direction of legendary and award-winning actor, playwright and director, Dr. John Kani, are proof of the richness, enduring relevance, and timelessness of South Africa’s protest theatre tradition.
Written collaboratively by the trio of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who were part of a group who in 1963 co-founded The Serpent Players, in Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha), a mixed-race theatre troupe that would go on to produce many productions and in so doing challenge the Apartheid laws which forbade whites and blacks to share a stage together. The Island and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, which were and are often performed together are celebrated as two of iconic South African plays which depicted the dire and inhumane living conditions black people were subjected to during the Apartheid regime.
These two plays would also bring the ultimate accolade to John Kani and Winston Ntshona, when they each won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for both The Island and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead in 1975. The awarding of this renowned prize to the both of them spoke volumes of the thematic concerns and relevance of the two productions, as well as the uncanny acting credentials of John Kani and Winston Ntshona, horned thousands of kilometres across the world, as part of The Serpent Players. Such a feat has not been repeated since.
Now being studied as part of the South African schools’ curriculum, The Island and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead are being accessed by a new generation of young people who were not alive during the time of Apartheid. This is important to ensure that the younger generation are made aware of the history of the country and how things were like during that time.
As one of the original co-Playwrights and now Director of the two plays current iteration, Dr. John Kani, posits that;
‘The role of the arts has always been to educate, inform, and entertain. Going back to these two great classics of the South African theatre, ‘Sizwe Banzi Is Dead’ and ‘The Island’ with a young company has given me the opportunity to bridge the generational gap between the youth and elders of our people. This exercise reminds all of us of the price that was paid by parents for the freedom we are enjoying today. What a joy for me to work with such talented young artists and the Joburg Theatre’
As part of the Joburg Theatre’s School Setworks programme and featuring a young cast with the likes of Luntu Masiza, Siya Mayola and Anele Situlweni, The Island and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead are giving the younger generation a glimpse of what life was like during Apartheid, just as Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona did many decades back, when they originally staged the two productions.
The Joburg Theatre’s School Setworks programme has seen The Island and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead touring several Gauteng schools which has given the learners an opportunity to watch productions which they had only experienced through reading them as play texts. It further reinforces the importance of ‘edutainment’, where there is a balance between the educational and entertainment components in a theatre or other creative arts production.
The Island and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead were written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and the late Winston Ntshona. They were both directed by John Kani and featured Luntu Masiza, Siya Mayola and Anele Situlweni. The two productions had a limited run at the Joburg Theatre from 01 to 03 October 2021 before embarking on a school’s tour from 4 to 16 of October 2021.