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When John Kani’s play Nothing But The Truth opened in July 2002, the audience in Grahamstown, South Africa, gave it a five-minute standing ovation. Kani, who also played the lead role, went backstage and wept: “The gates opened and it just flooded out.” The play won three Fleur du Cap awards.

Kani had written honestly about the difficulty of forgiveness: the forgiveness that was vital to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), that Kani and many South Africans agreed was necessary for the country to move on, but that demanded so much of individuals.

The play examines what “truth” and “reconciliation” mean for one ordinary man: Sipho, an ageing black librarian in the township of New Brighton. It shows his painful journey towards confronting his own experiences under apartheid: the killing of his son, shot dead by police, and the rift with his brother, an activist who went into exile. The title refers to the oath taken by those testifying to the TRC, but it also raises questions: “Is it true that the truth will release you?” asks Kani. “Is it true that the truth will cleanse you? Will not that truth complicate things?”

Nothing But The Truth has its UK premiere in London tonight, at the start of a national tour. Kani is a distinguished activist and a multi-award-winning actor, director and writer, but as he sits in the Hampstead Theatre bar, contemplating this opening, he is brimming with anticipation. “I have come to England many times, but always in other people’s plays,” he says. “My real excitement is about the English debut of a play I have written myself.”

And the play, his first work as sole writer, was hard won. Kani played a key role in forging South African protest theatre: with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona, he co-wrote and performed the 1970s classics Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island. He was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 23 days. His older brother spent five years in Robben Island Prison. But it was the fate of his younger brother, Xolile, a political poet, that haunted him: “He was shot dead in 1985 during the uprising. I was very, very angry.”

When the TRC hearings started, the pain resurfaced. “I understood the whole purpose of Truth and Reconciliation, and I supported it 100 per cent, but I couldn’t deal with it myself. I remember one time my wife asked me, ‘Do you forgive?’ I didn’t have an answer. I said to her, ‘I have a problem even in saying the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our trespasses” – I can’t say “as we forgive them”.’ I worked with it. Unclosed, unfinished, un-resolved. Finally, I decided to write a little story to him. And this became the play.”

The first draft was unusable. “I wrote the first 15 pages and, when I looked at it, I thought, ‘This is crap. It’s all political rubbish. I’m too angry.’ So I left it alone for three months. Then I went back to it. But this time I forgot the 15 pages.”

This time the story became a family drama, with Sipho struggling to square his need for justice with his urge to forgive on a personal, as well as a political, level. The poet, shot by police, became his son. The pent-up pain poured out in several speeches at the end of the play. After he performed it, Kani reports, “A strange feeling came over me: a feeling of relief. I then answered the question for myself: I’m able and willing and I forgive.”

The play focuses on tensions in the black community between people who left, as exiles, and those who stayed. It depicts the messy legacy of those brutal decades. And it recognises the price paid by every ordinary, unsung person, who attended the marches, observed the boycotts, endured and fought the regime.

The importance of giving a voice to the ordinary man was something Kani learned through working with Fugard. “I first met Athol in 1965. I was a young writer and I was also part of the political movement so I had Big Ideas. I thought that if we looked at Article 16 of such and such a law, we could write about that and expose that. And Athol kept saying to me, ‘Tell the story of the man you walked past, standing at the bus stop. The rest will take care of itself.’”

Fugard was right. When Sizwe Banzi opened, its portrayal of Sizwe, a black worker who struggles with the dilemma of whether to take a dead man’s identity to get the right stamps in his passbook, expressed more about South Africa’s de-humanising “pass” laws than any analytical text could. Sizwe Banzi is also coming to the UK: Kani will act in a revival of the original 1972 production (with Ntshona) at the National Theatre in March. Meanwhile, a French production, directed by Peter Brook, visits London’s Barbican in May.

The timing offers audiences a potential “before and after” experience. “Sizwe is the beginning of protest theatre; Nothing But The Truth is post-apartheid South Africa,” Kani says. “So you can see the role of theatre: where we came from and where we are today.”

The transition has been difficult, he says: “In 1990 there were about 300 scripts being written demanding the release of Nelson Mandela. And suddenly we watched Mandela walking out of prison. So those scripts had to be destroyed. And then, like in the eastern bloc after the fall of Communism, we didn’t know what to write about. A thought comes into your head: ‘Where’s my war? I want my anger, I want my bitterness, because that was my driving passion.’ Our audiences also had to go through a huge transformation – we had educated them into believing that theatre deals with issues.”

He adds that writers are now articulating some of South Africa’s current problems – crime, poverty, Aids, the environment. He is mid-way through a second play. “I’m travelling with it: all these little exercise books are in my case. I’m hoping it will be ready by June 2008.”

In the meantime, having just made a film of Nothing But The Truth, he is rediscovering the immediacy of the stage version. The play has provoked a huge response, not just in South Africa, but in the US and Australia. In New York, a discussion of the play’s themes had to move to a bigger venue when 1000 people turned up, asking questions about the relevance of the truth and reconciliation process for Iraq, the Middle East, Rwanda and Northern Ireland.

And in Sydney, Kani recalls, he became “a counsellor”: “People came backstage and sat and just wept. Some of them, ex-South Africans, would say, ‘How do you feel about people like us, who never went back?’ I would say, ‘If you contribute towards a co-existence that is fruitful and free of racism, you will serve South Africa where you are – because you know the pitfalls of allowing the evil of racism to manifest itself in a society. You can say, “I know where this leads: I’m South African.” Your contribution for a better quality of life is where you are. Where you are now.’”

‘Nothing But The Truth’ runs to February 24 at the Hampstead Theatre, London, then tours. Tel 20 7722 9301

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