'Sizwe Banzi Is Dead' by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona
Presented by Soulpepper and now onstage in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District
Dahlia Katz. Tawiah M'Carthy (kneeling) and Amaka Umeh (standing on chair)
An emotionally gut-wrenching production that hits the core of my being. The beauty of Amaka Umeh and Tawiah M’Carthy’s gifted performances shamefully reminds me I still have a long way to go in learning more.
‘Sizwe Banzi Is Dead’ opens in Styles’ (Amaka Umeh) photography studio in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He reads a newspaper and has finished an article about an automobile plant and then, in a fascinating monologue delivery, begins to tell the audience a funny story about the time he worked at the Ford Motor Company. The audience also learns that Styles had a former job before becoming a photographer. Sizwe Banzi (Tawiah M’Carthy) enters and would like to have his picture taken. When Styles asks his customer’s name, Sizwe hesitates momentarily and then uses the fictitious name of Robert Zwelinzima.
Sizwe confidently addresses the audience, delivering a monologue in the form of a letter to his wife. He reveals that he will inform her of his death upon arriving in King William’s Town, where he plans to search for employment with the assistance of his friend, Zola. Despite facing difficulty finding work, Sizwe persists and stays with Buntu (Amaka Umeh), a friend of Zola’s, in order to continue his job search.
One evening, Sizwe and Buntu visit a local bar, during which Sizwe steps outside to relieve himself and discovers the deceased body of Robert Zwelinzima. Upon noticing the man's passbook, which grants permission to work, both Sizwe and Buntu decide to take it, with Sizwe now assuming the identity of the deceased man.
At this part of the play, an intriguing question is raised: What motivates someone to take on the identity of a deceased individual? According to Assistant Director Tsholo Khalema's I never thought about “the proverbial deaths of Black persons who were forced to modify their behaviour in order to avoid being perceived as aggressive or threatening.” I never knew they were required to carry a passbook dictated by the Dutch colonial government indicating the individual’s right to work or reside in a specific town. To assume the identity of a deceased individual with the proper passbook would be the only option for safety.
And that’s exactly what happens when Buntu removes the photo on Robert's passbook and replaces it with Sizwe's. Buntu convinces Sizwe to burn his passbook and adopt Robert Zwelinzima's identity. He assures Sizwe that he can always remarry his wife.
Do I blame either of these individuals for doing what they did? Absolutely not.
That’s why the play resonates with me emotionally as I was not fully and compassionately aware of what was transpiring overseas. Seeing ‘Sizwe Banzi’ makes me deeply regret my lack of knowledge about this dark period in history and wish I had taken more initiative to educate myself.
Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu clearly focuses her inspired direction on the value of all black human lives. A story like this requires two gifted performers who tell with the utmost grace, keen humour, frank observation, and candid reactions.
Amaka Umeh and Tawiah M’Carthy magnificently do just this. As Styles, Umeh’s recounting of the photos she has taken of individuals over the years is riveting to watch. There is such happiness and confidence in the way she speaks about those whom Styles has photographed. As Sizwe, M’Carthy is the exact opposite of Umeh’s Styles. Sizwe appears initially hesitant and nervous when he enters the shop. Much-needed humour occurs as Styles poses Sizwe in some unnatural stances for the camera.
But Amaka and Tawiah also do more for me.
Their impactful performances continue to remind me I still have a long way to go in learning more about “how we can learn from our past to move forward” as Director Tindyebwa Otu writes in her programme note.
Ken Mackenzie's set design effectively immerses the audience in a different era and location. Raha Javanfar's enigmatic lighting design establishes a foreboding tone. Richard Feren's sound design serves as a stark reminder that we are not in North America. I particularly admired Ming Wong's costume design for Tawiah M'Carthy, as his suit's pinstripes and pristine appearance conceal the true identity of Sizwe from the audience initially.
Final Comments: Although I remember during high school and completing my undergraduate degree that the situation in South Africa was bad, I never fully understood the immense human suffering caused by apartheid. Tindyebwa Otu’s Director Notes reveal South Africa’s apartheid laws were inspired by Canada’s own policies towards Indigenous people.
I felt tremendous anger at this realization and sadness in recognition I didn’t learn more.
‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead’ is one very important theatrical work to see. I hope there might be some audience talkbacks before the show concludes its run.
Continued work and guidance need to be evident after the performance.
Running time: approximately one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead’ runs until June 18 in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane in Toronto’s Distillery District. To purchase tickets: visit soulpepper.ca, youngcentre.ca or call 1-416-866-6666.
‘Sizwe Banzi Is Dead’ by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona
Director: Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu
Set Designer: Ken Mackenzie
Costume Designer: Ming Wong
Lighting Designer: Raha Javanfar
Sound Design and Composition: Richard Feren
Stage Manager: Sarah Miller
Performers: Tawiah M’Carthy, Amaka Umeh