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John Kani is one of the most dignified men I have ever seen on a stage. Even when stripped to the waist and engaged in hard labour in The Island, which he and Winston Ntshona co-wrote with Athol Fugard, there is something in his bearing which is not quite magisterial, but so substantial as to suggest that no man should be punished like this. So it is in his first solo-authored play (which also serves, after 30 years, to remind us that Fugard was not the only begetter of The Island and Sizwe Banzi is Dead).
Kani’s character Sipho has been eroded by a lifetime of subordination to his brother Temba, which continues even as the latter’s ashes sit in an urn before Sipho, robbing him of the closure of a conventional burial. Temba had usurped their father’s affection, Sipho’s expectations of status (being feted as a UDF activist while Sipho supported the family as a librarian), even his wife and possibly his fatherhood. As Temba’s daughter, raised in exile in London, argues for his own daughter to assert her independence from him, Sipho begins to rail against the world that has denied him a senior job, denied him justice for his son’s murder and, in the person of Temba, denied him most of his life.
In most circumstances and most performances, this would collapse into a mean-spirited whine. But Kani the actor imbues Sipho with a sense of self that earths all the currents of self-pity: whatever he may have been deprived of, he is finally his own man. And Kani the author knows, as the play’s title intimates, that this drama is a microcosm of South Africa’s own process of truth and reconciliation.
Forgiveness may be all but impossible, but in the end one has at least to acknowledge past events openly (as Sipho says to the imagined shade of Temba about the adultery: “It happened”) and perhaps grant amnesty to be able to move on. Not shatteringly original, but powerfully realised in Kani’s writing and Janice Honeyman’s production. Especially at this moment in our history, it should be required viewing for my Northern Irish compatriots.
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