There Is A Drama Behind The Drama
For two weeks only, South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona will perform The Island at the Brooklyn Academy of Music=s (BAM) Harvey Theater. Thirty years ago they wrote this playCalong with Athol FugardCabout the South African maximum security prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and many others were sentenced to life for speaking out against apartheid.
Ever since the play was written in 1973, it has always been these two gentlemen who have performed it, at times resulting in their arrest and imprisonment. After three decades, Kani and Ntshona have decided they have done the roles long enough and will allow a new generation of actors to do the play.
Kani spoke with Our Time Press from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he is director of the Market Theatre and chairman of South Africa=s National Arts Council. AActors have performed the show around the globe, but every time they perform it in South Africa, they are compared to Ntshona and myself. We are ready to pass the roles on, so the press can stop comparing these young actors to us,@ Kani said.
The play is a drama which looks at the hard lives of the prisoners and at them preparing to do the play Antigone, a classic production about resistance. In addition to the drama onstage, there was an equal drama occurring behind the scenes, when the play was first performed in South Africa and for many years following. AWe wanted to do a work that depicted the prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for life. It was a fitting tribute to him and the other men there. People were forbidden to talk about Robben Island. The government wanted us to forget Mandela. The play was a way of keeping his name alive and the names of the other prisoners, so that we would never forget about them. The script took 14 days to create and perform.
You couldn=t produce a text that could be used in a court of law against you.
We kept the story in our heads and improvised,@ Kani recalled.
The play had its share of great success, and from 1973 to =75 Kani and Ntshona performed it in England, in the United States in Connecticut and eventually on Broadway, where Kani and Ntshona shared the first-ever dual Tony Award for acting. In 1976, they performed it in South Africa, only to be arrested and placed in solitary confinement for 15 days until protests from Broadway and Hollywood celebrities like Vanessa Redgrave and Sidney Poitier and massive demonstrations in New York, Paris and around the world got them released.
The script, according to Kani, is based on stories from people who had been on Robben Island. Kani=s own brother was there for five years. AIf you were really involved in the struggle (against Apartheid) you were underground in the community, in exile, dead or on Robben Island,@ Kani said proudly.
While throughout the world performances of The Island were done in theaters, in its homeland, it could only be done for private audiences. AThe Right of Assemblage Act forbid the gathering of two or three people under a roof. We would do the play for invited audiences, charge no admission and have no review. Many times the play was performed at universities as study material or in church halls. If the police came we could change the evening into a prayer meeting. It was wonderful,@ he said. AWe took the risk every night knowing we may not go home tonight, we could be arrested,@ added Kani.
When Apartheid ended, Nelson Mandela met Kani and said he wanted to see the play in 1995. AWinston and I put it together in three weeks and did it for Mandela, his entire cabinet and over 120 former Robben Island inmates. It took on another meaning that night. It was about the indestructibility of the human spirit. That night we experienced the longest standing ovation ever in my entire history as an actor,@ he recalled.
In 1999, director Peter Brooks saw the production in South Africa and brought the actors to Paris to perform the show, but first it went through massive changes. AIt was the most challenging 12 days of our lives. He took the play apart and made us re-create it. He had us search into the emotional reasons why we put it together 26 years before. Now that South Africa was a democracy, Antigone became the central issue of the play. It lifted the play from its confines in South Africa and it became a play speaking for people anywhere they are denied the right of self-expression,@ Kani said. Discussing the message of the play, Kani stated, Ayou can survive anything if you hold on to your dignity.@
Kani and Ntshona have been performing the play for three decades, but their friendship goes back further than that. High school friends, they have known each other for 42 years. AWe share a chemistry, understanding and respect for each other,@ Kani said.
Looking at The Island and other productions that Kani mounts as director of the Market Theater in Johannesburg, he sees how the themes changed since the ending of apartheid. AOur theater has always been relevant, concerning the issues of the day. It told stories of our people under apartheid, gender discrimination, and child abuse. Today, South Africa is an emerging new nation, building a new people and society and that is the work emerging from young and established writers. The majority of the work talks about reconciliation and healing the nation,@ Kani said.
The actor/director/playwright currently has a production playing in South Africa called Nothing But The Truth about reconciliation, which began performance in July 2002 and is currently touring South Africa. Kani has been acting since 1965 and expressed its importance. AIt is the opportunity to communicate, be historian of our culture, continuing the oral traditions of our heritage. It=s a means to inform and educate our people,@ he said.
In 2001, Joe Mellilo, executive producer from BAM, invited Kani, Ntshona and Fugard to put on the production in 2003. Kani was thrilled by the invitation. To say to the Americans >Lest We Forget=, if audiences can take that lesson our visit would be a success,@ Kani said.
Kani states that audiences will laugh, shed tears and feel their spirits lifted by The Island. The play will only run for twelve performances from April 1-6, 8-11, 12-13. To purchase tickets call BAM ticket services at 718-636-4100.