Sizwe Banzi is Dead Review - "Your papers are not in order"

Chicago’s Court Theater concludes its 55th season with Sizwe Banzi is Dead, written by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona and directed by Resident Artist Ron OJ Parson.

Chike Jonson as Styles

Set in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa in the 1970s, Sizwe Banzi is Dead opens with Chiké Jonson as Styles, a photographer who tells a series of humorous stories about the difficult path he had on the way to having his own studio and control over his life. Jonson effectively uses his body and varied, strong South African accents to portray his characters. He continues with stories about photos he has taken and describes his studio as “a strong room of dreams” for those who come to get a “snap.” Styles is interrupted by a knock, and a Man enters.

Allen Gilmore as Sizwe Banzi

This is Sizwe Banzi (Allen Gilmore), an innocent, middle-aged man who came to Port Elizabeth to find work to support his family, 150 miles away in King William’s Town. After Styles takes two pictures, the lights close in on Sizwe, who narrates a letter to his wife; he will send it with the pictures to tell her how his troubles have ended and how he came to have his picture taken. The letter comes to life: the simple photography studio – a sign, a table and chairs, a few props and a backdrop of black and white identity photos – becomes a room in a small house. Jonson becomes Buntu, a friend of a friend, who hid Sizwe after he was picked up in a police raid.

Perhaps Sizwe did not have permission to be in the first friend’s home; perhaps he did. No matter. He had been taken to Native Commissioner’s office and his Book of Life, the identity book all non-white South Africans had to carry at all times, now has a stamp indicating he must report to the authorities in King William’s Town within 3 days from the date of the stamp.

Sizwe can’t read and doesn’t realize that the time to report has already passed and that his permit to work in Port Elizabeth has been revoked. He cannot stay. According to Production Dramaturg Kelli Marino, “this play is a direct reaction to author Athol Fugard’s work as a law clerk at the Native Commissioner’s Court in Johannesburg where he saw blacks jailed daily for not having their pass-books in proper order.”

Chike Jonson and Allen Gilmore

Allen Gilmore’s Sizwe is as compelling as Jonson’s Styles and Buntu. Gilmore folds into himself and takes up little space as Sizwe. He is diffident; when he stands, he is slightly hunched; as he sits, he tilts his head, moves his hands to the center of his body, and turns his feet inward. His deeply furrowed forehead shows Sizwe’s confusion – he does not understand the impact of the stamp and why he cannot simply stay and work. Next to Chiké Jonson’s powerful Buntu, Gilmore’s Sizwe is small and childlike.

Sizwe reveals more of himself as he spends a night with Buntu, he is funny and sweet as he and Buntu return from a night of drinking, stubborn when he believes Buntu takes a moral misstep when a corpse is discovered on the way home, and as strong as Buntu when he asks the simple question why, as a man, he is not allowed to work.

Chike Jonson as Buntu and Allen Gilmore as Sizwe Banzi

Buntu convinces Sizwe of the only way to solve his problems. In the face of apartheid, moral qualms must be ignored Gilmore’s Sizwe displays the torture he feels and his inner strength as he first fights and then accepts the need to give up his identity in the face of the need to support his family. Yet he knows even this sacrifice may not work in the end. When Buntu says “You will be safe as long as you stay out of trouble,” Sizwe replies, “Do you know what you are saying? Black man stay out of trouble? Impossible. Our skin is trouble.”

Athol Fugard once said that in his plays he’s “tried to celebrate the human spirit—its capacity to create, its capacity to endure, its capacity to forgive, its capacity to love even though every conceivable barrier is set up to thwart the act of loving.” This powerful production of Sizwe Bandi is Dead does exactly that.

Director Parson said, “When it was first performed in Cape Town in 1972, Sizwe Banzi was a powerful indictment of legal apartheid and its devastating effect on human dignity. Almost forty years later, I still find [the] play relevant: not only for those too young to remember South African apartheid, but also for those of us in need of renewed moral clarity about the human oppression that continues to take place around the world today.”

Court Theatre
5535 S. Ellis Avenue
Chicago, Illinois (773) 753-4472

May 23, 2010 – June 13, 2010
Schedule: Wednesdays & Thursdays:  7:30 p.m
           Fridays:   8:00 p.m.
           Saturdays:   3:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.
           Sundays:      2:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
           Tickets: $32 - $56

PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Brosilow

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