Sizwe Banzi is Dead
Township Theatre, South Africa
Arts Projects Australia and CICT17 October 2007
Review by Christina Cass
Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a richly crafted morality play by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona of the Township Theatre in South Africa. The second in a series of three Statement Plays is sparsely directed by the legendary Peter Brook and performed completely in French with English surtitles. There are times when I go to an Italian opera and become distracted by the supertitles being flashed above the stage or on the back of the seat in front of me – taking both body and mind away from the action on stage. Now that’s not so bad with opera (as ‘action’ is not often used in conjunction with the performance medium) since it’s primarily an aural and atmospheric experience. So taking your eyes off the stage doesn’t mean you’re lost.
However, in dramatic or comedic theatre, surtitles can be a problem. You might miss too much of the unfolding visual story on stage, but not so with Sizwe Banzi is Dead. Habib Dembélé has us riveted from the very beginning. He deftly creates a story about his former factory life at Ford Motors in South Africa with just two rolling racks (the ones you use to transport garments on) and a giant collapsible garbage bag. He spins them around to create entrances and exits and transforms his body and voice to portray multiple characters. Not being fluent in French was hardly a liability for me because this engaging actor embodied each and every one of his characters, so if you missed a few translations, you still understood the story.
Dembélé’s nearly 30-minute monologue sets up the entrance for our protagonist, Sizwe Banzi, played with equal deftness by Pitcho Womba Konga. We are better prepared to understand big city conditions of King William’s Town that Banzi is faced with as a young father far away from home. He cries, “What’s wrong with me? I’m a man. I’ve got eyes to see. I’ve got ears to listen when people talk. I’ve got a head to think good things. What’s wrong with me?”
Ultimately, Banzi’s plight to legitimise his right to work in addition to running from the authorities brings us to a crisis when he is faced with the possibility of stealing a dead man’s papers in order to feed a family who will think he has disappeared. Banzi is forced to confront the deeper meaning of this action and the knowledge that the shift is irreversible. He is told, “You must understand one thing. We own nothing except ourselves. This world and its laws, allows us nothing, except ourselves. There is nothing we can leave behind when we die, except the memory of ourselves.”
With a focus on identity, humanity, truth and survival, Banzi is Dead blurs the lines of repression and makes this journey universally accessible. An absolute must see.
This review originally appeard on AussieTheatre.com.