John Kani, the king of South African theatre

Lauded as the king of South African theatre, internationally acclaimed playwright, director and actor John Kani was honoured with the Naledi Theatre World Impact Awards at the prestigious awards, which took place on May 20. According to the Naledi Awards founder and chief executive, Dawn Lindberg, the World Impact Award is bestowed upon individuals or collectives who have raised the bar for South African performers internationally.

Kani is held in high esteem for his contribution to South African theatre and for representing us in international films such as The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), Captain America: Civil War (2016), and Black Panther (2018); he will also be appearing in the remake of The Lion King, playing the role of the wise Rafiki.

Born in 1943 in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, Bonisile John Kani has played a major role in taking South African theatre to world stages, giving our stories of pain, power and liberty the international recognition they deserve. Kani’s affinity for the performing arts began when he was in high school, where he participated in countless school plays alongside fellow thespian and playwright Winston Ntshona. Their relationship was founded on a solid foundation of an inspiring and resolute commitment to the performing arts, right up to the moment of Ntshona death in 2018. Immediately after completing high school, Kani dived into working with drama groups in New Brighton, contributing to the development of the performing arts in his community.

In 1965, Kani became a member of the Serpent Players and met the prolific and venerated South African playwright Athol Fugard, with whom he established a lifelong friendship, from which South Africa’s theatre industry has benefitted immensely. In 1972, the collective efforts of Kani, Ntshona and Fugard birthed a play that would put South African theatre on the global stage. The seminal Sizwe Banzi is Dead was a cogent and powerful portrayal of apartheid’s restrictive pass laws. In 1973, they produced The Island; a production that was based on a true story and set in an unnamed prison. Kani, Ntshona and Fugard took these two plays to local and international stages. The collective’s brilliance was recognised in 1974 in New York where both Kani and Ntshona won a Tony for best actor. Kani continued his practice of conducting workshops, which were held in New York and Los Angeles. In 1976, he toured Australia, where he worked with the Aboriginal community around Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth.

After touring overseas, Kani and Ntshona took Sizwe Banzi is Dead to audiences to the rural areas. Because it exposed the egregious abuse of the apartheid regime, Kani and Ntshona were arrested and Kani was detailed for 23 days. But after protests by those who supported Kani and believed in the importance of his work, he was set free.

In 1977, Kani and Barney Simon came together to establish one of the cornerstones of South African theatre: the Market Theatre. In 1990, the duo established the Market Theatre Laboratory, which exposes young people who don’t have the funds or the necessary formal education, to study the performing arts. Since its establishment, the Market Theatre Laboratory has aided in opening the doors of opportunity for young performers who have the necessary talent and passion. Kani has always been resolute in his commitment to preserving the performing arts by making sure that young people are given the chance to participate and explore aspects of themselves they may have never known existed.

Kani’s commitment to telling important stories almost cost him his life in the 1982 production Miss Julie, performed at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. He kissed a white women; not only did some audience members walk out in disgust, Kani received numerous death threats and was stabbed 11 times in an assassination attempt. Regardless of the challenges and painful circumstances under which Kani had to pursue purpose, he continued to be active in developing theatre and performance in South Africa. In 1987, he was bestowed the merit award from the Southern Transvaal Chamber of Commerce for his bountiful contribution to arts and culture, and how he used his craft in the struggle for liberation.

In 2002, Kani debuted as a sole playwright. His play Nothing but the Truth dealt with the tension between exiled South Africans and those who remained in the country. Venerated South African writer Zakes Mda had this to say about the play: “It is still necessary to talk about the past, because the past will always be a powerful presence in the present …. We must never forget, but this does not mean that we must cling to the past, and wrap it around us, and live for it. We only look back in the past in order to have a better understanding of our present. This is one of the greatest lessons of Nothing but the Truth.” This important work of art earned Kani a Fleur du Cap Award in 2003 (Best New Actor and Best New South African Play) and five Naledi Awards in 2004.

It is rather unfortunate that South African theatre does not receive the support and recognition that it deserves; little investment goes into growing the theatre and performance industries. Moreover, young people aren’t encouraged to join the performing arts as they are, almost desperately, beckoned to enter into the fields of science, technology and engineering. John Kani is the perfect example of just how powerful the performing arts are; he is evidence that is it possible to build a successful career as a performing artist. In order for us to see more Kanis, we need to cultivate a culture of going to theatre and investing the arts and culture.

Kani is currently touring with his most recent play, Kunene and the King.

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