Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Sizwe Banzi is Dead, Oct 16, 2007 *****

Sizwe Banzi is Dead  *****
Written by Athol Fugard
Directed by Peter Brook
Cast: John Kani & Winston Ntshona
Melbourne Festival of Arts
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Oct 16 to Oct 27, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 16, 2007

Sizwe Banzi is Dead is the epitome of actors’ theatre.

Distinguished director, Peter Brook places two inspiring and engaging performers in a virtually empty space to tell a simple story of a man overcoming adversity during Apartheid in South Africa. The compelling story is presented on a human scale with humour and pathos.

The play opens with a long monologue by the cheeky and adorable Habib Dembele as Styles, an African worker who describes and enacts in hilarious detail his workplace at the Ford car plant. Styles escapes from factory drudgery to a photographic studio where he encounters Robert Zwemlizima (Pitcho Womba Konga) who wants a photo to send home to his wife.

What slowly unfolds is a morality tale of Robert, who was born Sizwe Banzi, stumbling drunkenly upon a dead body on the road and facing the dilemma of appropriating the man’s name and identity papers that will permit him to work. Robert-Sizwe has no work papers so he confronts a choice that challenges his moral view, his sense of self and his desire for security and employment to provide for his family.

The intimacy and authenticity of the two performers is enchanting. With his vitality, playfulness and dexterity, the pint-sized Dembele, a writer and political activist from Mali, conjures a parade of characters with only a tilt of the head, twist of the mouth and shift in the body. He miraculously creates three generations of a family who visit Styles for a group portrait. His physicality is fluid as he dances lightly around the stage from character to character.

The magnetic Konga, a rapper from the Congo, brings a quiet and simple dignity to Robert-Sizwe, playing him with warmth as a gentle giant and a moral man facing a great dilemma.

This thought-provoking play was developed by Afrikaner playwright, Athol Fugard with black actors, John Kani & Winston, Ntshona and first performed in 1972. By telling real stories based on the experiences of South Africans during Apartheid, the grotesque injustices visited upon people in their daily lives are brought into high relief in this and Fugard’s other Statement Plays.

Sizwe Banzi is now performed in theatres but, in the 70s, it toured South African townships and the potency and relevance of its story and authenticity of its actors created profoundly emotional reactions in its audiences. 

Apartheid might be past, but prejudice and racial abuse lives among us still. As Robert-Sizwe says, “Our skin is trouble.”

By Kate Herbert

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