Court Theatre presents
SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD
At 5535 S. Ellis Avenue
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
Thru June 13th
Running Time: One hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
‘We own nothing but ourselves. The only thing we leave behind is the memory of ourselves.’ Court Theatre presents SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD, the final show in the triple play of Fugard Chicago 2010. Playwright Athol Fugard, along with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, wrote a powerful two act play to illustrate the injustice of apartheid rule in South Africa. The trio devised the show with Kani and Ntshona playing the three characters that would earn them 1974 Tony Awards. In the first act, Styles is a factory worker turned photographer. Styles describes the ordeals of tyrannical bosses, laborious application processes, and supernatural longevity of cockroaches. As a photographer, he captures the celebratory moments of native Africans. In an oppressive time period in history, those photographic moments are rare remembrances of pride. A mysterious man named Robert enters Styles’ studio. Timid and downtrodden, Robert wants his picture taken to send to his wife. What’s his story? And who is Sizwe Banzi? Act 2 answers all these questions and more as a satisfying and poignant prequel. SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD is snapshots of people’s hardships cropped to sharp, humorous close-ups. It’s a heart-wrenching tribute to dignified survival over cruel adversity… shaken like a Polaroid picture.
The two man show is masterfully directed by Ron OJ Parsons. In multiple roles, Chike Johnson (Styles/Buntu) is colorfully energetic. As Styles, Johnson is so genuine in the moment that his narration feels spontaneous. He is hilarious acting out stories as dictators and cockroaches… similar in their absurdity. His comedic mimicking is entertaining whether he is a gun toting exterminator or a photographer going for the ‘cheese’ moment. In Act 2, he dials down the pace as Buntu, a somber survivor of apartheid. As drunks, Johnson and Allen Gilmore (Sizwe Banzi) have a light-hearted scene interacting with the audience. It’s ‘a catch your breath’ moment before Gilmore strips himself of dignity. His transformation struggle is painfully human. He utters 8…3…6…. with a range of raw emotion that left me wanting to go on stage to comfort him. The chemistry between him and Johnson is war buddy solid. ‘The only time we find peace is when they dig a hole and press our face in it.’ The friendship bond, originally depicted by Kani and Ntshona, is a solidarity triumph.
The set designed by Jack Magaw is picture perfect for the show. Magaw covers the backdrop with aged black and white snapshots blown-up. Many of the photographs have an African smiling and holding up their required identity passbook. It’s a wall of shame for apartheid. In a story told by Styles, a man wanted his photo taken with his education certificate. After 22 years of dishwashing, the piece of paper would allow him to qualify to be considered for promotion to a busser position. SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD is a magnificent reminder of how fortunate Americans are to live in a democratic nation. After the winter productions of ‘Master Harold and the Boys’ at Timeline Theatre and ‘The Island’ at Remy Bumppo, SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD completes the Fugard Chicago 2010 initiative. The series of plays were important lessons in apartheid history. They also serve as real life reminders of what humans are capable of doing to each other.
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” -Stephen Biko
Production photography courtesy of Michael Brosilow.