Acclaimed actor and director John Kani, recently honoured by the Hiroshima Foundation in Sweden, this week shrugged off a challenge in letters to newspapers by actor Pieter-Dirk Uys to contribute his substantial prize to the cash- strapped Market Theatre, where he is artistic director.
Uys said he was delighted that Kani had received the prize money, “funds that will no doubt keep the Market Theatre going”. His letter raised the issue of whether Kani would hang on to the money at a time of hardship for the arts and the Market Theatre specifically. Reports have indicated that the Market Theatre will run out of funds next month and the Market Theatre Laboratory may face closure in the near future.
But a donation from the artistic director does not seem on the cards. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Kani said from London: “The award was for individuals.”
On January 23, Kani and poet Antjie Krog were awarded the prestigious Hiroshima Prize, given for contributions to peace and culture and amounting to $120 000 (R720 000). Kani, according to the Hiroshima Foundation, was chosen “for his contribution for allowing black people into the theatre during the 1980s”.
Uys called on Kani to “set the record straight”. He pointed out that Kani was not in the forefront of “allowing black people into the theatre during the 1980s”. “During the 1980s, Kani was an actor and an icon, not a theatre manager,” he said.
Kani did not deny that he had never opened the theatres to black people in the 1980s. “I was never in a position or part of any particular anti-apartheid institution that opened the theatres to black people. The award recognised individuals who made a contribution to reconciliation in South Africa.”
In his letter Uys attributed the honour of bridging cultural barriers at the Market Theatre to Mannie Manim and Barney Simon, and Brian Astbury of the Space Theatre in Cape Town. These are the names, he said, that kept South African theatre alive.
In an interview with the M&G, Uys said his reaction to the announcement of the award was “just to tell John to tell the world the truth”; the information the Hiroshima Foundation released is incorrect.
“The mention of what John does with the money was just a twitch of the tongue. I don’t care what he does with the money,” he said.
Uys was not alone in calling for historical accuracy. Actor Soli Philander, during his Cape Talk radio show, Airborne, this week called on Kani to get his act together: “John Kani gets awards every year and it is unfair for people to get awards for things they did not do,” he said.
“I’m glad that John is getting awards,” said Philander. “But managing the Market Theatre does not suddenly make John the person who opened theatre doors to black people, as has been written in the papers in Cape Town. People giving out awards should know who they are giving awards to.”
Kani said he was surprised that his friends Uys and Philander had been misled by what they’d read in the press.
Kani and Winston Ntshona are currently performing The Island, the 1960s epic workshopped with playwright Athol Fugard, at the Royal National Theatre in London.