John Kani: grandfather of SA theatre

20 November 2013

South Africans refer to actor, playwright and director Bonsile John Kani as “the grandfather of South African theatre”.

The Tony Award-winning actor is perhaps best known for co-playwriting and his roles in The Island and Sizwe Banzi is Dead. Written in collaboration with Athol Fugard and actor Winston Ntshona in the early 1970s, the plays became international hits in the apartheid era. They remain relevant and popular productions even now, four decades after they were first performed.

Kani is the subject of a 21 Icons documentary due to be screened in South Africa on Sunday. The nation-building project aims to celebrate the lives of 21 “extraordinary South Africans who have captured the global imagination with their dignity, humanity, hard work and selfless struggle for a better world”.

A black-and-white portrait of Kani by Adrian Steirn, who conceptualised the project, will be published as a commemorative poster on the same day in the Sunday Times.

Deeply politicised from a young age, Kani says in his interview that it was his meeting with Fugard and the Serpent Players theatre group in the 1960s that made him realise he could use his acting skills to fight apartheid – and that white people had a place in that struggle too.

Kani speaks about how his first meeting with Fugard was life-changing: “When I got to the rehearsal space the white man I had walked past and didn’t care about came in. He had a long beard and was lighting a pipe and he said: ‘OK, guys, let’s go’.

“They were discussing Antigone,” Kani continues. “And the question was: If the state passes an unjust law, have the people the right to break that law? And I said, ‘I’m home. This is where I belong’. I could use the stage, I could use art, I could use theatre to continue my struggle for liberation.

“Instead of wanting to pick up the AK-47, I could pick up a cultural AK-47. Instead of wiping out the white race, I could educate them and teach them about human dignity, respect and equality. That is when I made the decision that I am going to be an actor. I was a political animal looking for an outlet, looking for a platform to continue my struggle for liberation.”

Sense of pride

Growing up in New Brighton, a township outside Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, Kani was instilled with a strong sense of pride in his Xhosa heritage by three grandmothers, the wives of his polygamous grandfather.

“I grew up very arrogant,” he tells the 21 Icons team, “very confident and very proud of being an African. I had absolutely no inferiority complex of any kind. Actually, I had a superiority complex. I was taught I’m the best thing since sliced bread. I’m the best thing since condensed milk.”

And it was this sense of self-worth that he wanted to instill in black South Africans through his work with the Serpent Players.

“We decided to tell the other story: the story that even though we were born in the township, if you take the dahlias and the lilies and the carnations from the white man’s garden, they will grow – that we are the flowers of the townships.

“And that was the mandate of the Serpent Players: to tell the story that would motivate the people, that would make them see themselves as human beings, that would give them the power that it is in their hands to liberate themselves.”

Provocative

Kani was harassed during performances by the security police many times and admits that he deliberately sought to provoke them through his work.

He recalls: “If the police stop the play, we knew it was making a difference. If they didn’t, we went back to the drawing board to add more things. It felt it was wrong if it wasn’t banned.”

He once spent 23 days in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, after he had been arrested with Ntshona as the curtain came down after a performance of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead.

He describes the incident in 21 Icons: “Taking the curtain call, the cop grabbed me, in costume, and pushed me into a car. After about an hour on the road they stopped and pulled the car off to one side and the two of them got out.

“And I heard the white policeman say: ‘Bring them out, kill them.’ And I thought, what a good day to die for what I believe in, for being an artist. For being an artist that represents the truth that is bold enough to tell it like it is.”

Fortunately, it turned out that he had to help move a horse that had been hit by a truck and that the policeman was referring to killing the animal, not his prisoner.

Social change

Kani is now executive trustee of the Market Theatre Foundation, founder and director of the Market Theatre Laboratory, and chair of the National Arts Council of South Africa.

His portrait will be auctioned at the end of the series with the proceeds donated to the John Kani Education Fund, which helps drama students at The Market Theatre Laboratory pay their study fees.

Today, the Lab continues to operate as an agent of social change, through various outreach and community training programmes and festivals. It stands as testimony to Kani’s determination to use culture as a weapon of change.

Kani doesn’t believe in destiny being foisted on a person, he says, he believes one makes one’s own destiny. And he has no regrets.

“I’m grateful for the experience I’ve had, for having been part of the struggle. My memories are beautiful. Sometimes they haunt me, but I’ve learnt to be selective about my memories. There are things I put away, very far away, but I never throw them away. Because when I need them, I can go get them. Now I use them as an actor.”

Kani’s new production, Missing – his first play since his smash hit Nothing But The Truth – will be on stage at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town from February 2014.

21 Icons South Africa and SAinfo reporter