It’s hard to imagine that “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead,” a play about apartheid, was allowed to premiere in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1972. Written by white playwright Athol Fugard in collaboration with black African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the play introduced United States theatergoers to that country’s system of oppression when it opened on Broadway in 1974.
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre’s regional premiere opened to a full house. To an audience that is educated in the horrors of apartheid, the script may seem a bit lighthearted. It is not funny enough to be a comedy, and not brutal enough to reflect the horrors of the era. It does provide a human look at the nature of a man’s identify, when a government-issued passbook defines where he can live and work.
CAST excels at providing a full-immersion theatrical experience, and this production, co-directed by Dr. Corlis Hayes and Michael Simmons, does not disappoint. Patrons are issued a passbook that is studied by an usher before admission. As we enter the theater an actor appears to be photographing the audience. He is our narrator, Styles, who worked for the Ford Motor Co. for six years, until he opened his own photography studio.
It’s a tough job to command the stage alone, which is what actor Devin Clark achieves as he introduces the concept of apartheid in the first half of the play. As Styles, Clark speaks directly to the audience, describing how his fellow auto plant workers felt when Ford himself visited the plant. They hoped to move beyond their white boss’ impression that “every time he saw a black man walk out with hands in his pockets, he saw a spark plug walk out of the plant.”
They remained disappointed.
Styles recognized his subjugation and took charge of his own identity by starting a business. “We own nothing except ourselves,” he explains. Now he captures the dreams of his people with his lens. Clark is charming. His accent is spot on, and his consistent engagement with the audience is impressive.
After sharing his own story, Styles introduces us to Sizwe Bansi, who has come to be photographed. Thus begins the play within a play. Bansi left King Williams Town to work in Port Elizabeth. After his workplace was raided by police, Bansi is informed that according to the information in his passbook, he’s not allowed to work in Port Elizabeth, and he seeks refuge with a local named Buntu, also played by Clark. At this point the play becomes preachy.
Ron McClelland plays Sizwe Bansi, a sincere, naïve man whom Buntu educates in the realities of apartheid. The two get drunk, and in the process stumble upon a horrific opportunity for Bansi to obtain a new identity. In a moving scene McClelland proclaims words echoed in the struggles of many people, historically and today, “What’s happening in this world, good people? Who cares for who in this world? Who wants who? Who wants me, friend? What’s wrong with me? I’m a man.”
“Sizwe Bansi Is Dead” won two of the four Tony Awards for which it was nominated in 1975. While dated, new renditions of this story are born each day.