I went to watch an Athol Fugard play last week – Sizwe Banzi is Dead, at The Baxter. Written by Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona forty years’ ago, it is still completely relevant. I am embarrassed to admit that, at the ripe old age of forty, it was my first Fugard on stage. Especially embarrassing due to the fact that he lives in the place that holds my heart and where I plan, at some stage, to spend more of my time than not.
I love The Baxter, with its porno-70’s-alien-spaceship lights and vast foyer that whispers with the dramatic voices of the thousands of drama students, theatre aficionados and master actors that have passed through it. Even more, I love The Flipside. There’s something magical about watching a play from backstage, knowing that behind the curtain there is a vast auditorium. I always imagine that it’s filled with the ghosts of patrons past, whispering to each other, clapping silently, rustling ghostly sweet papers.
Back to the play. The reason I’ve been lax about seeing a Fugard is that I was worried they’d be too serious (I’m a bit of a philistine theatre-goer, or possibly more aptly described as a bimbo thaetre-goer, if you will). I was mistaken, I’ve been a fool, I am now converted. The script and the story left me breathless with wonder and with heartbreak. I’m not being overly-dramatic (although I know I am, often), when I say breathless. I really was, literally, breathless, three times during the 80-minute two-hander.
I can’t remember that happening before – feeling my chest tighten with sadness as tears poured down my face. The kind of tears that are heavy and big and wet your face, dripping down into your shirt. The kind of tears that flow at the thought of what people had to go through during those horrific days of Apartheid, what people are still going through, albeit in a different political climate – migrant workers, the refugees. There’s a long list of people forced to leave their families and put their lives at risk, to lose their identity, right now in the world. We, as humanity (and I use the term loosely), should be ashamed.
Between the tears, though, as Atandwa Kani and Mncendisi Shabangu wove their magic, I laughed. Loud, joyous laughter. That’s the beauty of this richly-woven story. It’s human nature at its finest – gritty, funny, heart-wrenching. Sitting watching these men, I realised what critics mean when they say “powerful performances”. These were them. I was entranced.
If you’re in Cape Town and you only go to one show this year, make it this one.