John Kani inhabits the place where world theatre and South African politics intersect, and it’s a pretty interesting spot. In his 40-odd years as a theatre artist he has watched the issues of his own country taking their place on the world stage. Sometimes, ironically, this has meant that he hasn’t been free to perform his own work in his own land. On the other hand, he has had the satisfaction of seeing how theatre itself can play a powerful role in healing a wounded nation, and in taking the message of human freedom to the world.

In 1965 Kani joined playwright Athol Fugard and actor Winston Ntshona in the Serpent Players. He performed with the company in the original productions of such modern classics as Sizwe Banzi is Dead; Master Harold and the Boys, and My Children! My Africa! (Kani has appeared in the latter play at Toronto’s World Stage Festival.)

In 1973 Kani, Ntshona and Fugard set out to create a play that would bring attention to the plight of political prisoners (like Nelson Mandela) in the notorious prison on Robben Island. Friends and relatives of company members were jailed there, but those outside the prison knew little about what was going on inside, and were reluctant to discuss it publicly.

The Island, starring Kani and Ntshona, was performed only twice in Cape Town, but reached a huge international audience through performances in London, New York and Australia.

"It was a massive political statement," says Kani."

It was protest theatre. It paved the way for a theatre of revolution in South Africa.”

Upon their return to South Africa, Kani and Ntshona continued their brand of theatrical agitation. It did not go unnoticed. “We were in 1976 plucked from stage and taken into solitary confinement,” says Kani. Both were detained for 23 days.

“In 1985 I did Miss Julie in South Africa. For the first time there was a Black man kissing a White woman on stage. There were staged walkouts; every night there were threats of bombs in the theatre.” Two years later, playing in Shakespeare’s Othello, Kani was once again detained and questioned by the police. Why was he kissing Desdemona on the lips when the script called only for a brief embrace?

“When Lord Olivier did this play with Maggie Smith, his black make-up kept rubbing off on her, so they couldn’t exploit the love relationship,” Kani responded. “I don’t have that problem, sir.”

The political forces, once unleashed in South African theatre, were insistent. Towards the end of the struggle against apartheid, “We made a joke that we had about 18 plays demanding Mandela’s release; when he was set free, they all went in the garbage,” says Kani.

The fall of the White regime brought about instant changes, theatrical as well as social. “Immediately the white producers began to import plays from the west,” Kani says. (Boycotts had previously prevented them from bringing in London and New York productions.) “Younger writers began to write plays about understanding the new political climate. At the same time we introduced edutheatre: the culture of getting our young people back into the classroom,” he says. “We had a huge community of high-school dropouts.” These shows addressed a wide range of issues like “violence, crime, drugs, teenage pregnancy, African family structure.”

In 1995 President Mandela asked Kani and Ntshona to remount The Island. Performing before “nearly 300 ex-Robben Island inmates, we tried in that performance to remember the suffering of the people at that time,” says Kani. “When President Mandela stood up, there was 15 minutes of applause.”

At the invitation of renowned European theatre director Peter Brook, The Island has now been remounted with both Kani and Ntshona, and is touring to Paris, Stockholm and London, as well as Toronto. “Peter Brook gave us a fresh non-political look at this piece of work,” says Kani. He describes the tearful thanks he received backstage after a Paris performance from three young people who had been imprisoned in Israel. “That’s how universal the play has become,” he continues.

The present tour is certainly a triumphal one, but it has another quality as well. “We know about Canada. We know the positive role the Canadian people played in the struggle,” Kani says. “It’s almost like we’ve come to say thank you to the Canadian people.”


Cover photo courtesy of: National Arts Festival