But how could that possibly be humorous, I hear you ask. Well, think about the idea of apartheid. If it wasn’t so tragic you would laugh out loud. That could never work, you would say, what a totally hideous, ridiculous and … yes … madcap idea! The show puts the spotlight on the Kafka-esque ridiculousness of the system. There may have been a few embarrassed giggles when the show premièred in October 1972 at the Space Theatre in Cape Town, but it must mostly have made for pretty uncomfortable viewing.
Fast forward 40 years, Sizwe Banzi is Dead is back in a new incarnation, starring a new generation of actors. John Kani’s son, Atandwa, stars alongside Mncedisi Baldwin Shabangu. Both are absolutely brilliant in a totally flawless show.
I asked John Kani what it felt like to have his son snapping at his heels, performing so well in a role that he perfected (or vice versa). He glowed with pride when he said to me: “I built the boat; he is polishing it.” And, boy, does that boat shine!
Kani Senior also told me how much of the story was his own. He worked at the Ford factory for a number of years, which explained the surprising and very amusing detail – sound and action – in the production line scene. Kani was there when the current Mr Ford came to visit and ‘the boys’ bent themselves out of shape to be the smiling Shosholoza-singing workers, playing their part as if in some ridiculous game.
This is just one of many personal stories woven into the play. One wouldn’t want to say which of the Kanis was better suited to the role, nor whether this version is an improvement on the earlier, surely much grittier version. There is no doubt, though, that this show is worth seeing even if the first one, starring the older Kani, broke your heart. But be warned: this one may just split your sides.