Agitprop ages quickly, but sometimes it ends up in the history books and becomes interesting all over again. That’s the case with “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead,” South African playwright Athol Fugard’s collaborative effort with his countrymen John Kani and Winston Ntshona. When Fugard, Kani and Ntshona began working together during apartheid, the collaboration earned the actors Tonys from the Broadway community in 1975 and harsh jail sentences from the government they were criticizing. “Sizwe” re-stages the first of three collaborations, and while the 36-year-old play feels a little elderly, it’s still a fitting epitaph to a truly strange type of tyranny.
“This is Africa,” says photographer Styles (Kani), gesturing at a map of the world. His subject, Robert Zwelinzima (a movingly sad Ntshona), looks closer as he points deliberately at South Africa. “We are right down here, just about to fall off.” If Styles and Robert are edging closer to a precipice, the people pushing them are the Afrikaners who enforced the kind of Catch-22 bureaucracy that still runs riot across the continent nearly two decades after Nelson Mandela walked out of prison.
This system, which makes a sort of Kafkaesque sense, is of great concern to a man who used to be called Sizwe Banzi before he discovered he could not live with that name in Port Elizabeth — where he has at least some chance of finding work. This man is now Robert, and he’s having his picture taken so that when he sends money home to his wife, she’ll see that he’s all right.
Robert is being recalled to his home of King Williams Town by way of a stamp on his passbook, which he didn’t understand because he can’t read. The stamp means no one in Port Elizabeth will give him a job. Even if he doesn’t get caught for burning the book or being without it, when he goes to the government for a replacement, computer records will ensure that the same stamp ends up in the reissued book. If he goes back to King Williams Town, he will be unable to feed himself or his family.
All this, believe it or not, is pretty funny when Kani and Ntshona explain it, proving Samuel Beckett’s adage that when you’re up to your neck in shit, all you can do is sing.
Kani mugs shamelessly through the play, sometimes snatching a hard-earned laugh and sometimes stumbling, pulling the audience through his initial 45-minute monologue about working for Ford in South Africa by sheer force of charm.
But the narrative sketch of life in 1970s Port Elizabeth serves the rest of the play well — it helps put us on local time, laughing with Kani at the white man, whose ignorance is exceeded only by his power, and sympathizing with his efforts to make a living in a world that doesn’t much care for him.
“Sizwe Banzi Is Dead” makes its mark suddenly, when the light conversation shifts to a question of how to change identities, and the thrill of having found a way to do it. “Burn this number in your head,” Sizwe’s friend Buntu (also Kani) tells him. “It is more important than your name.”
The sight of a man changing himself totally to suit his persecutors breaks your heart, but when he takes pleasure in the resulting pitiful freedom, it makes you, appropriately, a little sick.