Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona - Statements
The early 1970s saw the collaboration of South Africans Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona in the theatre. Fugard was the director and established playwright, while Kani and Ntshona were both young actors. Together they co-wrote two of the plays in Fugard's collection, Statements - Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, which premiered with the two actors as lead. The last play in the trio, Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act was solely Fugard's work, and offers, along with the others, harsh criticism of South Africa's apartheid rule. Taken as a whole, the three plays are vivid and creative, rising above the oppression of the period while remaining firmly ensconced within. They manage to be both an artefact of their time and relevant outside of it, and even today, revivals are well received both within South Africa and abroad.
Sizwe Banzi is Dead opens within Styles' Photographic Studio, where Styles (originally played by John Kani), sits reading the newspaper. He becomes preoccupied with American news, vocally expressing his outrage, dissatisfaction, or cynical humour concerning the acts of faraway people whose actions have, unfortunately, large effects within the South African nation. Styles remembers back to when he worked in an automobile factory, and the hurried activity and turmoil that occurred when Henry Ford Jr. came to visit:
What's this? Been here five years and I never seen a white line before. Then:
CAREFUL THIS SIDE. TOW MOTOR IN MOTION.
It was nice, man. Safety-precautions after six years. Then another gallon of paint.
NO SMOKING IN THIS AREA. DANGER!
And so on, the crux of the matter is that the black workers did not have anything by way of safety or cleanliness until the white owners came to town, and then suddenly everything was made to look right. Styles and his fellow workers know this, and laugh about it, but the undercurrent of being a lesser creature runs through. Is it an accident that the whites called the blacks 'boy', no matter their age difference? Of course not – it's a demeaning act, it creates a parent-child relationship, and it reinforces the reality that the white people are in charge and the black people are not.
Soon, though, Styles (after wasting months seeking approval amongst the bureacracy dedicated to hampering black people from owning, or doing, or achieving, much of anything in South Africa) opens his own photography studio, where he caters toward the dreams of poor men like himself. Styles says,
what do you see? Just another photographic studio? Where people come because they lost their Reference Book and need a photo for the new one? ...and I just then kick them out and wait for the next [customer]? No, friend. It's more than just that. This is a strong-room of dreams. The dreamers? My people. The simple people, who you never find mentioned in history books, who never get statues erected to them, or monuments commemorating their great deeds. People who would be forgotten , and their dreams with them, if it wasn't for Styles
Styles, then, sees himself as a man who is able to grant small dreams to those who spend their who lives dreaming and never manage to hold their dreams in their hands. When a man or woman comes in for a photograph, Styles makes them pose, or smile broadly, or hold various props he has just for the occasion. And why? It is to make them look how they would like, so that they have, at least, a photographic representation of themselves as they wish they are. Did you always wish to be university educated, but could not because of the colour of your skin? Why, man, hold this newspaper, wear this hat, and tilt your head like this to look intelligent. Styles take care of the rest, and the result is that there is at least a record, somewhere, of a dream realised, even if it is all artificial. As Styles says, “This world and its laws, allows us nothing, except ourselves.”
Enter Robert Zwelinzima. He wishes to send along of a photograph of himself to his wife. Styles, used to this sort of thing, coaxes Zwelinzima into posing appropriately, to show his wife that he is (though she may not believe it) successful at his place of employment, and moving up in the world. Soon, the bulb flashes, the 'photo' (ie the actors) freezes, and then Zwelinzima takes over the story.
It seems that Zwelinzima is in fact Sizwe Banzi, a man who has found himself in an awful predicament. The details are there, but the problem is one that has a single source – he is black, and not in control of his life. In desperation, he steals the Reference Book of the dead man Robert Zwelinzima, whom he finds in an alley. Banzi and his friend Buntu discuss the morality of using the Reference Book to replace Banzi's life – which has become horrible – with Zwelinzima's, which, from the details in the book, still seems okay. At least, he can work.
This half of the play neatly dissects the predicament a black man in South Africa faced when, for whatever reason, his Reputation Book – his livelihood, life, and public identity – became besmirched. It meant a lack of opportunity, or even a complete ban on working. Banzi is crushed, ready to be discarded, over and done with as a man – but Zwelinzima is not. What should he do? Take the Reputation Book and become a new man who can still work and provide for his family, or keep his name his own, and with that fall down, down, down the social and economic scale until he is forced homeless and on the streets?
Sizwe Banzi is Dead reads very well. Fugard handles the switches between time and location with aplomb, and the dramatic tension of the work is evident on the page as much as on screen. Styles, Banzi and Buntu are men trapped in a world that is resolutely political, where even the act of being born has political ramifications, and their words and actions reflect this. They don't necessarily like the world into which they have been born and where they live, but they must accept, and this they do. Fugard's criticism is subtle, and more powerful for it.
Politics aside, this is a very readable play. There's a lot to enjoy, with Styles' experience in the automobile factory and his attempts to live and work as a photographer adding much. Styles is an appealing character, and he possesses an admirable range of humour, rage, and wry acceptance. Oddly, Banzi is perhaps less engaging, and though the plot becomes important and enthralling during his part of the play (roughly half), the characters of Banzi and Buntu pale beside Styles.
The Island is set on Robben Island, famous for its most distinguished prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Winston and John (and surely it is significant that the character's names match the actor's) are cell-mates together, and they get along well. Their activities as prisoners are tedious and without end, and indeed they match the limitless futility of Sisyphus and his rock. The men bicker, argue, and support one another in much the way a married couple would, and the emotional ramifications of their confined togetherness is never far from the play's reach.
John learns that his sentence has been reduced to the point where there are only three months to go, while Winston has a life sentences, and knows he is unlikely ever to leave the island. Winston is ecstatic for him, and together they begin to plan John's future. John is scared and somewhat shaken at the idea of leaving, and added to that he doesn't want to abandon his friend. Winston, too, becomes bitter and angry that John will be with his wife and children and Winston will become a memory rarely explored and better left at rest, but over time the men come together again and remain friends.
This is an excellent play, and it, too, reads very well. There are flashes of Waiting for Godot's Estragon and Vladimir, but The Island remains explicitly political, whereas Beckett's work refrains from such commentary. At any rate, the characters of John and Winston are well-explored, and their situation, while bleak, must be understood as part of life for these two. As a statement against apartheid, this play is angrier than Sizwe Banzi is Dead, and its weapons are blunter and pounded with greater force. This works very well, particularly when Winston fantasises about John's homecoming. As he makes John's return more and more glorious, the darkness and miserable reality of Winston's life becomes clearer and less just.
The last play, Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act, was written by Fugard alone. It is more experimental, certainly, and is the most overtly political of the three. In it, two lovers talk and share, and as they do, a strange hint of menace appears. We don't know why, but as they idly discuss idle things, the play shifts perceptibly darker, and there is a growing sense of discomfort. Fugard handles this well, though this play, out of the three, reads with the least amount of force.
The last third of the play is its culmination, when the lovers are discovered and force to justify and atone for their actions. The man is black and the woman white, and this is undeniably a sin against the state. They take turns speaking out against their punishment, with the man's final monologue a powerful and heartfelt rage against the machine of South Africa. It is reminiscent at times of Shylock's famous lament, and carries with it the same pungency of a distasteful truth come to life.
Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act takes more technical risks than the other two plays, and it is difficult to properly review without having seen it performed live. I suspect it would be very powerful with the right actors, but the text as it stands relies so heavily on monologues and impassioned pleas (which, necessarily, is difficult to inflect within the printed text), that the words can only be admired when spoken. That said, and as mentioned above, this last play deals most directly with the problems of South Africa during that period, and this remains firmly embedded within the play even when read.
Fugard, Kani and Ntshona have since gone on to have outstanding careers within the world of theatre, both inside South African and further afield. These plays represent their earliest collaborations, and show three young men willing to put their necks on the line to make firm, clear, powerful and, above all, artistic, statements about their lives and their times.
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