Theater legend Kani revisits South Africa's destiny with Shakespeare

Theater legend Kani revisits South Africa’s destiny with Shakespeare

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Johannesburg (AFP) – When John Kani began his career in the 1960s, his only stage was an empty snake pit at the edge of a closed South African museum.

Today his latest production, ‘Kunene and the King’, was launched with the Royal Shakespeare Company, one of the UK’s most famous British theater troupes, and performed in the West End, the major London theatres.

Today she resumes her tour of South Africa, which the Covid and its procession of theater closures had interrupted.

John Kani began imagining it in 2018, planning to celebrate “the following year the 25th anniversary of democracy in South Africa” ​​and “the advent of the new rainbow nation, non-racial and non-sexist,” the 79-year-old actor told AFP.

The play features Lunga Kunene, a middle-aged black nurse tasked with caring for a white actor dying of liver cancer, but determined to live long enough to play the part one last time. of old Shakespeare’s King Lear.

“I wanted to create a plot that forces one to not be able to survive without the other”, explains John Kani. A play about theatre, irrigated by Shakespeare.

“I suddenly found myself caught up in the story of these two men, who came from opposite sides and who see South Africa differently, and whom only the love of Shakespeare can bring together”. “This is how King Lear became woven into their history”.

Both characters recite Shakespearean tragedy, highlighting Lear’s struggle with death. Including verses by Julius Caesar, taken from the original play and a translation into Xhosa, Kani’s mother tongue, which he had performed at school in 1959.

South African actor Michael Richard, at the Johannesburg Theater on June 3, 2022, before a performance of John Kani’s play “Kunene and the King” MARCO LONGARI AFP

In the current tour, Kani is performing with prolific South African actor Michael Richard.

“Lear learns about humanity throughout the play,” he explains. “In this adaptation, my character learns about humanity, as South Africa did in a way.”

From Mandela to Marvel

The tragedy carried by Kani’s play has against all odds become reality.

In the British production, he shared the bill with the ennobled South African actor Anthony Sher, a specialist in Shakespeare. And Sher died in December of liver cancer, the same disease that eventually took his character in Kani’s play. His younger brother had also died of liver cancer in 2019, when the piece was mounted.

Tragic, the play is nevertheless sometimes very funny, and will perhaps rediscover Kani to his young fans who know him mainly for having played the father of the Black Panther, a Marvel superhero, in 2018, or lent his voice to shaman mandrill Rafiki in the 2019 remake of The Lion King.

But in South Africa, he is above all a legend of protest theatre. His 1960s play in the Snake Pit led him to collaborate with Athol Fugard, considered one of the greatest national playwrights.

They defied segregation laws under apartheid by meeting in secret, holding rehearsals in classrooms or garages, under constant harassment from the much-dreaded police.

They baptized themselves the comedians of the Serpent, playing classics like Antigone in the snake pit of a neglected museum.

In the early 1970s, Kani, Fugard and another comedian, Winston Ntshona, wrote new plays revealing the cruel reality of life under apartheid.

In 1975, Kani and Ntshona won a Tony – the theater Oscar – for “Sizwe Banzi is dead”, a play they performed in New York.

The three actors also wrote “The Island” about the conditions at Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned.

Today, South African theater is surviving as best it can, with an occupancy rate still limited to 50% by anti-Covid measures.

After this pandemic and its deadly effects across the globe, audiences are receiving “Kunene and the King” in a bit of a different way, Kani notes.

With Covid, people “understand the process” of illness and death, he says. “Africans have a great respect for death. And if they understand the journey (towards death), they see it as the continuation of life”.

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