Directed by Ron OJ Parson
At Court Theatre Chicago
Heart felt emotions fuel Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi is Dead
Director Ron OJ Parson found two superb actors, Chike Johnson (Styles/Buntu0) and Allen Gilmore (Sizwe Banzi) to put a face on the victims of South African apartheid. First staged in 1972 at great risk by actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Sizwe contained a personalized long monologue based on Kani’s experiences and the items in the local newspaper. Eventually, Kani, Ntshona and Fugard settled on a powerful script that, through storytelling, humanized the torturous living of blacks in South Africa from apartheid policies of the white government.
The first part of Sizwe tells Styles’ story. Chike Johnson’s 30 minute monologue mixes the experience of a hopeful, action oriented man with an positive spirit and a strong determination toward being his own man in a repressive society. Mixing physical humor with poignant storytelling, Johnson vividly presents the hurdles a black man faced living in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa in the 1970’s. While Johnson’s performance in telling Styles was heartfelt and energetic, I had trouble understanding him due to his thickly authentic accent. Once Johnson relaxed a tad and I adjusted my concentration, the rich humor and irony of Styles story struck home to me. We see how, despite the horrendous regulations, Styles was able to leave his manual labor job to start his own business a photographer in the African township of New Brighton. Styles tells how the simple act of possessing for a family photo lifted the spirits of black families. A simple act of defiance and independence? Styles was “tired of working for the white man. . .tired of being another man’s tool.” Styles takes action to fulfill his dreams. The humor and honesty of Johnson’s styles monologue was impressive.
The second part of Sizwe is the story of a humble, and a little simple-minded soul, know as Sizwe Banzi as he arrives for a personal photo at Styles’ studio. We see that the middle aged Sizwe can’t read and therefore he doesn’t realize that his Passbook or “Books of Life” – a sort of internal national book that contains all legal identification and permits required to be carried by all South African blacks. It contains a deportation stamp requiring him to leave Port Elizabeth since he has lost permission to work in the ‘white city.’
Styles helps Sizwe find refuge with a fellow named Bantu (also played by Chike Johnson). Buntu tries to ‘educate’ the ignorant Sizwe on the realities of his problem since his Passbook restricts his movements, his employment possibilities and his survival in the city. In a series of scenes, we see the raw human side of Buntu and Sizwe as they unwind from their troubles. These scenes are filled with humor and pathos as the struggle for personal identity, and family responsibility clouds the ethics and political dictates of the state.
Sizwe eventually realizes that a free man must create his own identity in order to survive. And that misfortune either destroys us or makes us strong. Sizwe speaks to the power of the human spirit as it postulates that human dignity, a free spirit and personal toughness will eventually win freedom for all. Sizwe Banzi is Dead was a bold play to mount in the 1970’s in South Africa. Today, it gives us a lesson in bravery. Chike Johnson and Allen Gilmore together gave two of the strongest, most truthful performances you’ll see on stage anywhere. The do Kani and Ntshona justice. This is powerful theatre!
At Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (on the University of Chicago campus), Chicago, IL, call 773-753-4472, www.courttheatre.org, tickets $38- $56, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm, with Saturday matinees at 3 pm. Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 pm, running time is 1 hour, 40 minutes without intermission.