Actor, humanist, mentor
Winston Ntshona (1941 — 2018)
In plays such as Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani teamed up with playwright and director Athol Fugard for classic performances that would be reprised many times over.
Speaking about these projects, Fugard has often stressed their collaborative nature,pointing out that they were produced under the umbrella of the Serpent Players, a multiracial theatre group he had helped to establish in the Eastern Cape in the early 1960s.
“No one person can take full credit for the event that we will see on stage,” says Fugard. “The Island and Sizwe Banzi is Dead were totally collaborative works. It was us getting together, and after a process —four, five, six weeks together — there was a play.”
Regarding the effect of both plays not only on South African theatre- goers but also on the craft itself, Dennis Walder writes in the Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary South African Theatre that: “The unique combination of Fugard’s push towards a Grotowskian emphasis upon the actor’s creative resources, and Kani and Ntshona’s ability to draw on the immediate, everyday experiences of black people in South Africa, resulted in a uniquely powerful form of witnessing in the theatre.”
When one watches a play such as Sizwe Banzi is Dead, for example, Ntshona’s intensity is seen in his ability to achieveso much emotively with very little physical exertion, an approach and temperament that complements Kani’s more physical approach. Fugard’s assertion that “theatre uses more of the substance of life than any other art” rings true in Ntshona’s performance in that play.
The Island, the other two-hander that Ntshona performed with Kani, would go on to be translated into more than 30 languages.
The two plays were staged in repertory in London, as well as on Broadway in New York, where the two actors sharedt he coveted Tony award in 1975 for Best Actor in a Play for both productions. It was these stage successes that would go on to set up their television acting careers.
Asked about what Ntshona, who died on August 2, may have been drawing from in these moments of excellence, actress Nomhle Nkonyeni, who co-founded the Serpent Players in 1961 at the age of 19, says: “It was everything. It was the situation we were under and so on, because black people under that government were not recognised as actors. It was like we didn’t belong to the human race. We wanted to point these things out and bring them to the [attention of the] community.
“So, it was how we were treated by the government which gave us the attitude of saying, through our work:‘Uzamazi umuntu omnyama ukuthi ngowalapha [You will know that a black person belongs here].’”
Although she is unsure exactly when Ntshona joined the Serpent Players, Nkonyeni puts the date at 1965, about the time of the arrest of one of the actors. She says Ntshona’s first gig as part of the troupe may have been in Friday’s Bread on Monday, a play based on an incident in Port Elizabeth witnessed by one of the actors. It concerns a group of boys, who trekked across town to buy three-day-old bread because Brito’s Bakery sold it at a cheaper price on Monday.
Recalling her first impressions of Ntshona, Nkonyeni said: “The man was good. We were all informally trained and we got our guidance from Fugard. He nurtured our raw talent…
“I remember once watching them do Jean Genet’s Deathwatch. It was an all-male cast. I remember sitting in the wings and seeing the challenge the man had. I remember one of the cast members had forgotten his lines and went to Ntshona improvising, sort of signalling, esithi, ‘Give me my lines.’ uNtshona was there for him. If you are able to support your colleagues like that in their time of need, to me it speaks to your greatness.”
Ntshona carried his acting intuition and craftsmanship over into film. Euzhan Palcy, director of the 1989 drama A Dry White Season, paid tribute to the actor recently by describing to The Hollywood Reporter how Ntshona did more than act the role of Gordon, a gardener whose son is beaten by the police; he embodied the character. “He was Gordon Ngubane, Mister Ben’s gardener in the film. That fellow was simply him, like he was simply that fellow,” she said.
An often-repeated anecdote about Ntshona was his generosity towards younger actors, whom he willingly mentored.“It was a personal thing where we felt we had to plough back,” explains Nkonyeni, a few hours before going to the set of Knuckle City, a film about boxing currently being shot in the Eastern Cape. “New Brighton made us who we were, so we had to share the talent. It wasn’t ours. It was for the people.”
In the week of Ntshona’s death,actor Percy Mtwa related an encounter with him in Port Elizabeth, which occurred when he, Gibson Kente and Mbongeni Ngema were touring Woza Albert. “During the tour we stopped in Port Elizabeth,” Mtwa told the SABC. “We heard that Winston and John were around. We had a goal to have our play open at the Market Theatre and felt that if we didn’t speak to John and Winston, it would amount to shooting ourselves in the foot. Every word that Winston uttered was to encourage us to pursue and master our greatness in the theatre.”
These are sentiments echoed by Kani. In a moving tribute to his friend published in the Sunday Times, Kani expressed how Ntshona, despite going on to have an enviable filmography, “would always talk to actors, give advice in a very gentle way. His aim was to make the company good, then we would all be good and the play would be a success, rather than saying: ‘I am the star.’”
Kani went on to tell of how Ntshona “cared about the people first, especially about the young people. He said if we don’t take care of them, they will be our opposition, our own people. That was in 1996.”
Nkonyeni remembers him as a philosopher who would often “see things zingekenzeki”.
Perhaps a lesser-known aspect of his life, highlighted during his memorial service, was his prowess at rugby, earning him the nickname Ironman. “That name Iron, intsimbi engagobeki [a rod that does not bend],” said former Springbok manager Zola Yeye, recounting Ntshona’s years in the Spring Rose Rugby Club. “It was not given to any ordinary individual, but a crafter, a hard tackler… He played for about three seasons, hard rugby ke ngelo xesha. Amabala ayekekelwe zizigingqi.”
Ntshona retired from club rugby after tearing a ligament.
Ntshona, who died aged 76 in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, will be remembered as a phenomenal yet humble acting talent.