Though only two actors command the stage and the set consists of little more than chairs and a backdrop, Court Theatre’s production of “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead” is filled with an energy and charm that belies its spartan setup. Deftly directed by Ron OJ Parson, the play is served well by the intimate nature of the Abelson Auditorium. Although more obscure and seemingly dated than other work by Athol Fugard (best known for “Tsotsi,” which was made into an Academy-Award winning film), “Sizwe” carries underlying themes of alienation and identity that move the piece beyond its 1970s South African setting.
The ninety-minute play opens with an extended monologue by Styles (ChikÃ© Johnson), a photographer in New Brighton who regales the audience with tales of his past as a line worker and his battles with cockroaches in his studio. Just when it seems his stories will never end, a rap at the door interrupts him. The nerve-stricken man he photographs, Sizwe Banzi (Allen Gilmore), falsely introduces himself as Robert Zwelinzima. Styles does his best to draw out this sorrow-ridden character, whose reasons for mystery and misery soon become clear. As the audience finds out, Banzi came to Port Elizabeth in order to find work. Unable to do so, he has found out he has three days to return to King William’s Town–he can work the mines there or remain jobless. After a long night of drinking with Buntu (also played by Johnson), a friend of a friend, the pair comes across a corpse in an alley. The corpse carries papers with a work permit. Name? Robert Zwelinzima. Banzi is then faced with the decision of returning home a failure or adopting the identity of this dead man, losing his own in the process.
The history of this play is in some respects as fascinating as the play itself. Fugard wrote this work in combination with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who both acted in the original production of the play. Kani used to improvise Style’s opening monologue, in some cases extending his lines until Ntshona forced himself on stage. Although never overt with its condemnation of apartheid, “Sizwe” was controversial enough to warrant the arrest of both actors for obscenity in 1976. Showings were marked by active audience participation and dialogues about the ethics of Banzi’s act would break out in the middle of scenes. The audience at Court Theatre for this production was a good deal more passive, though not for lack of trying on the actors’ parts.
Although the play is certainly a product of its time, this production of “Sizwe” has more going for it than its historical elements. The story’s personalized commentary on apartheid is well matched by the close physical proximity of the actors to the audience, and neither character is afraid to directly confront their viewers, grabbing hands and climbing over seats in one climactic scene. The play is strikingly physical: Johnson appears shirtless, and in one cathartic moment, Gilmore strips to his briefs. Without props or staging to hide behind, Banzi and Buntu’s physiognomies are all the audience has to understand the characters. Questions of identity abound, some obvious and others subtle. At what cost should one give up one’s name? For family, food, life? The dead man who Banzi becomes is not a deus ex machina solution to a problem of work but an absurdist beginning to a debate on identity. Although the play may have begun life as a political feature, its current aim is more philosophical–and Court Theatre meets that aim admirably.
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through June 13. Wednesdays, 10:30am and 7:30pm; Thursdays, 7:30pm; Fridays, 8pm; Saturdays, 3pm and 8pm; Sundays, 2:30pm and 7:30pm. courttheatre.org