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May 28, 2010

Court evokes the power of classic South African play

Every man needs a dream. Even in the most corrupt of conditions, he clings to a single idea in order to retain his humanity. Court Theatre’s Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a compelling investigation of a single man’s pursuit of a dream, and of the more personal, intimate implications of a ravaged apartheid society.

It conveys the shattered yet persevering spirit of the men and women who fought each day to sustain their identity in the face of absolute oppression, and it perfectly balances levity and gravitas to imbue Athol Fugard’s classic South African play with a newfound sense of relevance.

The play opens with Styles, the proprietor of a local photo studio. He reads the morning paper, voices an impromptu diatribe against the horrors of the age, and segues into a humorous anecdote about his days at the Ford factory and his manipulative white bosses.

Soliloquy-like in its minimalism and reliance on pure storytelling, the scene immediately introduces the main theme of the work: the tyranny of apartheid and the various ways in which the local citizens react to it. Styles receives a visit from Robert Zwelinzima, who is later revealed to be Sizwe Banzi, a suffering father with a family in a nearby town who is looking for work.

Banzi stays with Buntu, a friend of a friend, until he can procure a worker's permit to search for employment. On an inebriated trip to a bar, the two find a dead body in a back alley, and discover the dead man’s passbook, complete with working permit.

Buntu, sensing opportunity, coerces a reluctant Banzi to switch identities with the man, rendering Sizwe Banzi dead and Robert Zwelinzima newly alive. What follows is Banzi’s attempt to reconcile his sudden loss of identity and seemingly immoral theft with the prospects of financial and physical security that his new passbook affords him.

The complex interplay of personal and societal themes is complemented by the subtle yet potent set design. Chain-link fencing ascends from the muddy wooden stage to the shadowed ceiling, the wire serving as a backdrop for the various photographic portraits that hang slack and at odd angles.

The pictures are a masterstroke: They evoke emotion without compromising it, and remind the audience of the more somber undertones of the performance. These close shots of innocent children and broken families are personal, yet universal.

As the play features only two actors, it is very much dominated by the presence of personality—specifically, the conflicting and eventually converging ideals of Banzi and Buntu. Chike Johnson seamlessly transitions between the characters of Styles and Buntu, and Allen Gilmore is pitch-perfect in his evocation of a torn but ultimately triumphant man in Banzi. The performances are, at their core, about tension and release, and they are executed beautifully.

Director Ron OJ Parson does an exceedingly good job of maintaining an equilibrium between the intensely dramatic revelations and more lighthearted dialogue of the play. Though the subject matter is shocking and at times hard to watch, it is never overbearing.

There is, even in the drunken reverie scene at Sky’s place, a tone of gritty yet gentle realism: The characters playfully interact with the audience while sustaining the aura of what we know to be a harsh and cruel reality.

The performance is the Court’s first production of a classic play from South Africa, and the play is a testament to the universal significance of a man’s struggle with his needs and his conscience. First performed in Cape Town in 1972, the play has since enjoyed global success due to its powerful, simple message.

Every man needs a dream: Styles treasures the beauty and freedom of his photography studio, Buntu finds a refuge in the safety and security of his livelihood, and Sizwe Banzi, in the final solitary moments of the play, unearths happiness in the small satisfaction of a future. And, in some cases, that’s all that matters.

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