“Sizwe Banzi Is Dead” is a radical play about two strikingly ordinary people.
One, named Styles (played by Atandwa Kani in the play’s current production at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton), owns a small photography studio in New Brighton, South Africa. He opens the play with a casual monologue in which he riffs on some newspaper articles of the day. But then he tells you a story about his days working in a South African Ford factory (he’s got a hilarious anecdote about the day Henry Ford II came to visit) and how he summoned the gumption to leave there and start his own business. He’s a voluble talker and a buoyant soul: he cheerfully invites audience members up onto the stage with him, and gives the impression that nothing makes him so happy as to be telling his story, and taking photos of his clients.
One of those clients, named Robert Zwelinzima (played by Mncedisi Shabangu), takes over the second half of the play and tells his own story, with Kani taking on the role of Zwelinzima’s friend, Buntu. Zwelinzima’s a different kind of guy: more cautious, less ambitious, illiterate, striving always to do the right thing even when he’s not sure what that is. A real everyman. But through circumstances, as we learn in flashbacks, he has been forced to make a daring move — with Buntu’s encouragement — just to ensure that his life won’t be totally ruined by the South African government’s apartheid policies.
It’s Styles who draws us in, but Zwelinzima’s story is the one that really resonates. Kani and Shabangu are both excellent in their roles, with Kani exuding a kind of effortless, non-self-conscious charm, and Shabangu, a stolid dignity.
This is a 90-minute, one-act play, with just a few pieces of furniture and equipment to suggest the photography studio, and no set at all for much of Zwelinzima’s story. Yet through these two men, we learn a lot about what it was like to live under apartheid, where, among other indignities, black South Africans were issued passbooks, and could be thrown in jail for not carrying them, or not having the right certifications in them.
In 1975, Atandwa Kani’s father John won a Tony for his acting in “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead,” which he co-wrote with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona. The next year, John Kani was arrested for performing the play in South Africa, and spent 23 days in jail.
John Kani, now 71, directed the McCarter production, and is also credited with the costume design, as well as the set design, which could hardly be more minimal.
But there’s nothing fancy about any aspect of this production: It’s just a snapshot of South Africa’s not-so-distant past, conveyed with humor at first but then, also, inevitably, horror.
The play runs through Feb. 15. (For tickets and more information, click here.)