A new/old/young Sizwe: a review of the play Sizwe Banzi is Dead

 
 
 
 
It was my birthday on Saturday, so I took myself to the theatre. It was a last-minute decision after a difficult day, so I was very grateful that when I rushed in (late, puffed) and only had enough for a £10 ticket, the Young Vic staff were able to accommodate me.
As I was waiting for my late-comers’ entrance time, I had a quick run-down: a bit of the section I’d missed – a monologue from Styles about his time at the Ford factory, but nothing I couldn’t catch up on. 
 
And, it was explained to me, the crowd and entrances were segregated – we were sitting on separate bleachers.
I wasn’t shocked.
Perhaps I already knew from something I’d heard about last year’s season. Perhaps it just made sense, being that the play was portraying South African Apartheid.
 
 
 
The play
 
Sizwe Bansi is Dead was written by South Africans Athol Furgard, Winston Ntshona and John Kani, deep into Apartheid/National Party in the 1970s. First premiering in 1972, Cape Town, its first season in London (1974) won accolades and connected English audiences to the nature of apartheid (and its UK complicity – noting the presence of Barclays in the South African City skyline at Styles’ studio). It has since been performed here in 1977, 2007, 2013 and now 2014. 
 
 
The official blurb: 

It’s 1972 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and Sizwe Banzi’s passbook gives him just three days to find work. No work and he’ll be deported. That was four days ago.
So when Sizwe stumbles across a dead body with a passbook, he asks himself – does his identity card really define who he is? Could he give up his family and his name in order to survive?
 
 
 
Typically and misleadingly, Furgard is often touted as *the* writer of the play, however Ntshona and Kani are deeply entrenched in its dialogue – they played Styles and Bansi (Banzi) in the 1972/74 and 2007 seasons, and their names appearing as cameos in the play. Ntshona is the name of Buntu’s friend, and the “answering to ‘John!'” as a subordinate term was (presumably) not just about the de-nomination of Afrikans/Bantus, but also an oblique reference to Kani.  
 
 
 
Background info
Port Elizabeth, the setting for the play, is a White Area on the Eastern Cape outside the sanctioned African Reserve Areas of the Ciskei/Transkei. Highly regulated. And not to be confused with even-more regulated Port St. Johns.
 
Africans/Bantus require a permit to be in an area outside of their ‘Homeland’, or another Bantu designated work area, requiring the kind of visa the UK Home Office dreams about.
 
I am lucky to have a little knowledge of Townships, Homelands and the business of the book* thanks to some reading I had done last year1, which outlined the restrictions for working in towns like Port Elizabeth and the legalities of why the character would HAVE to go back to King William’s Town. 

Of course, I have zero understanding of the system portrayed in the play, but I got a little closer through seeing it.
 
 
This production
Sibusiso Mamba, who plays Sizwe Banzi/Robert Zwelinzima is actually adorable. He brings to the role a solid combination of solemn, awkward and honest – pathos. And this is crucial to playing a man struggling with being turned into someone he isn’t: not just his name, but someone who is twisted into dishonesty and manipulation in order to fit within the white supremacist system of Apartheid – in order to continue being something he used to be.
 
There is a section in the second half of play –  the crux of the work –  at the point in which Sizwe Bansi becomes Dead. It is where the desperation of being cut into a corner, dehumanised and bureaucratised has built to a point of such frustration, that he is willing to go to any lengths to prove that he is actually who he believes himself to be: a man.
 
The dialogue is full of tension. 

And, unfortunately, in the performance I saw, it lacked the conviction of that situation.
There is like a very good reason for this (see the next section), probably nothing to do with Sibusiso’s acting, but it was still a little disappointing.
 
Tonderai Munyevu – who I had seen recently in Zhe at the Soho Theatre – is fantastic. He’s such a bright light on the stage and brings that cheeky Southern African humour to it whilst balancing the gravitas of oppression under legislated white supremacy and poverty. I could be making this up, but I felt like he is more Styles than Buntu – more “dapper, alert, thriving’, than ‘strong, compassionate, willing’  but that’s just me projecting it onto him.
 
The Styles section of the play was exactly what I needed on my birthday: Lots of laughter, lots of humanity, lots of cheerfulness in the face of adversity, and lots of determination.
 
The blankes/whites
Throughout the last 30 minutes of the performance, every 10 minutes or so four white, drunk, fairly-young members of the audience tramped and sloshed their way across the bench seats and out the door. Stumbling, making noise, disregarding the action on the stage and being arses. One woman falling up the stairs and clearly unable to manage anything quieter than a stage whisper when talking to the ushers.
 
When the first two left, I was confused. I thought the preview I was in was, perhaps, a rehearsal and that they were crew making changes. Then when the next person left I realised that they were just being rude. And by the time the last woman left – making the most noise, I was ropable.
 
Of course, the disturbance was not just that of individuals or the performance itself. 
 
It highlighted the disregard us blankes still have for Africans and Black British people and stories. It reminded us that, despite being at a great performance of contemporary theatre, in one of the most diverse cities in the world, racism still exists. 
Overtly. Subtly. Structurally.
Truly, Madly, Deeply.
 
Theatre-goers aren’t some special breed, inocculated against ignorance and bad behaviour. And, in true privileged style, most of us theatre-going white folk like to think we are separate from it, so we also didn’t like it when they showed us up. Me included.
 
 
And this is problematic, but it was somewhat satisfying to spy one of the girls in the foyer and express my displeasure. Not in an English, passive agressive way, but it in an overt way. As overt as her racist behaviour was. I was also slightly relieved and pleased to hear others telling her and her friends off, expressing their dissatisfaction.  It felt like maybe a step towards a desire for whiteness to not include such disgustingness. Clearly I’m still in denial.
 
 
Set for racism
The white supremacy that the characters in the play are railing against is continued in the structure of the performing of the play itself. And, given the behaviour of my four ignorant friends, here, I would suggest that it’s destructive, rather than enlightening.
 
The fact that Furgard is still touted as THE writer of the play (especially in London), rather than as one of three equal contributors is a reflection of the way in which white writers are still privileged over black ones.
 
In fact, the 2013 season of Sizwe Banzi and The Island was often touted in the liberal London press – (Time Out, The Guardian) as an Athol Furgard season. Not a Furgard, Kani and Ntshona season.
All three writers wrote both these books, by the way. And it would have been the lived experience of Ntshona and Kani that enabled Furgard to even speak of many of these actions.
 
With this production, audience segregation is the action of white supremacy and it had a racist effect. Regardless of its intention.
Back to our drunk mzungus – did it charge the conditions for racist behaviour? White supremacy as a system, causes racism. If the crowd has been mixed, or our differences not highlighted or enacted in such a way – if the system was not replicated, would these people have still done this? 
 
Probably – because they were disrespectful, drunk and consequently self-absorbed and ignorant (the breeding ground of acting out internalised racism) but I’m asking the question anyway. 
 
Because I think it’s quite important for me to remember – especially as an intelligent, politically- and racially-aware white woman – that oppression and racism (see also patriarchy/misogyny, ablism, hetero/cis-normative/homophobia) it is not about individuals and their own actions. It’s the awareness that we are a group of people who contribute and that there are systems (designed) that create and perpetuate these destructive actions and beliefs.
 
It also reminded me that it’s only the privileged who get to really fuck around with paying homage to oppressive systems in art or theatre or design. It’s only really those who have no clue who are able to cherry pick symbolism, ‘reincarnate’ or try to bring it to life – because we can all go home, tralalala and write a blog post about it instead of committing suicide or stealing a dead man’s passport to stay alive.
 
1. Bantustans – The Fragmentation of South Africa was a disturbing but enlightening publication from 1964 by Christopher R Hill and the Institute for Race Relations, London. I learned a lot about the specific policy of apartheid and the gross financial and econonomic destruction that was behind the ideology, sold as ‘solutions’ every couple of years.
The Court Theatre study guide to the play is an interesting accompanyment.

image: promo shot pinched from the Young Vic website.

and then what happened?

reckless012
i may continue to write about things i learned at reckless for a while. probably because some of the works will take a while to sink in*
one that came to mind early on, perhaps even before the workshop started, was my new slogan for 2012: and then what happens? i don’t recall making a specific one for 2011, but it was tied up with not having a day job. 
anyway, i realised that i’m not so great at thinking through an idea to its true end. like, i have a good idea and can imagine the final ‘image’ of it, but the reality of my ideas and their execution is that the ‘image’ is really only the first part of the experience and sometimes i forget to think about the rest of it.
say i decided it’d be awesome to set up an installation in which people DO stuff. well i imagine all the details of the room – lighting, costume, action, person shuts the door, ta-da! but after that, someone has to open the door, reset the room and make sure that the instructions for the audience actually work. and i often forget about that stuff until the last minute. having gaffed it up in small ways during the workshop, i’ve vowed to take some time in a project to think like a production manager and make sure that the actual end of the work gets seen to. like when the last piece is taken out of the building and the work is safely stored in a warehouse, or something.
i don’t know if i’m quite explaining it, but i just wanted to share it all with you anyway. perhaps as a confessional. perhaps to get a witness. and make it ‘real’. 
reckless001
and something along with that resolve is also a reminder that i can make meaningful work about things that matter when i start with what matters to me. musicians i like often talk about the personal being political and i have been able to see how it works with them, but it wasn’t until i saw my own interests and experience being extended and expanded that i could see how it pertained to me too.
as i write, i’m currently waiting for some funding apples to fall from trees (could those with connections to christopher hitchens please ask him to orchestrate a little luck for me, please?), and quite a lot of that funding is to develop new works, or extend works currently in the early stages of development. i’m hoping to bring into those new works a deeper consideration and perhaps a more serious or formal process for developing my own works. this year it was quite haphazard – dependant on residency projects and a bit reactionary – coming back from europe and the early stages of figuring out how to actually manage my practice.
in that time i feel like i learned from my peers and elders how to put some space around my work a bit. interestingly a lot of them are from performance backgrounds and seem to have a good sense of time-planning that i have pinched from. not that i won’t give myself time to respond to works immediately, but next year i’m hoping to bring more measure into my time. 
and then what happened?
*guffaw! in-joke!  i made a work in which i got people to stick their heads in a sink full of  water) 
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assembly

On saturday night, i had the great fortune of being able to check out the last show of the performance Assembly, on as part of the melbourne arts festival.

a collaboration between victorian opera and chunky move dance company, i was intrigued by the outline in the festival program, and by the seemingly unlikely pairing.

the tickets were SUPER expensive, so my best friend (a dancer) and i almost didn’t go. until she overheard her dance teacher talking about how amazing it was. so we rifled through our possible discount options and, thanks to us both being RRR subscribers, got ourselves some cheap tix (still $60, mind).

after a bit of a kerfuffle with our seating, we settled in for what is probably going to be my favourite event of all year.

 i’m not kidding.

 it ticked so many boxes for me that within about 10 minutes of the performance, i had tears in my eyes from the beauty and ‘right’-ness of it. i know, so Ancient Greek of me, but whatever.

It was just stunning.

 I’m not so great at writing/talking about dance*, so please excuse the simplistic review, but it was fuckin’ ace.

The work was essentially about crowd movement. Gideon’s discription of it in the program outlined it well. He wrote of seeing choreographic a group as a single entity and how that translates into public gatherings. Each of the ‘movements’ within the piece addressed different types of crowd movement – the collective form, the beauty of patterned chaos, the swarm and how and individual can divide a crowd so quickly.

The dynamics between the performers was incredible and they must have just practiced and practiced and practiced. It was a perfect example of controlled mess.

Singers vs Dancers
As the program mentioned, it wasn’t an operatic piece that was ‘illustrated’ by dancers. It was truly a collaborative piece: the singers danced and the dancers sang. There were a small group of prinicpals from each side who led significant pieces, and supported by about 40 all-rounders.

Minimal set
The set was a brilliant double-sided, wooden staircase that added dynamic and cluey percussive elements to the dances. The movement thread up and over, up and across, down and over the stairs.
It added a percussive element to the otherwise accompanyless music, which I thought was pretty nice. And i almost wished for a little bit of tonal variation in the steps – not much, but just enough to click me.

Colour 
The costume design was so amazing. The design disease in me just went bonkers. Everyone was dressed in a perfect blend of colour and tone – elements of neutrality and hue, with divisions possible along colour, tone and temperature too.
The scene about (which i pinched from the SMH review) was a fantastic haka-esque battle between warm and cool sides, with operatic, but tribal yelling and beautiful but warrior-like movement. 
Sound of the crowd
Obviously i found some areas specifically relevent to my work in it. The sound of a crowd all talking at once is amazing to listen to. I do it regularly in my listening projects, and it was a new, yet familiar experience to listen to it in a framed performance.
And I also enjoyed a section, early on in the piece, in which the whole crowd tilted their heads, as though collectively listening – to each other, or to the audience, or just to provide a welcome balance to the previous cacophony of rhetoric en masse.
 * which is why sarah is going to start a dance blog soon. when i get off her back about it 🙂
thanks for subscribing to she sees red by lauren brown. xx