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It took a leap of faith for the award-winning playwright, director and actor John Kani to agree to do South Africa’s first telenovela. As Mzansi Magic’s iNkaba nears its end, with a bloody twist on the cards, Debashine Thangevelo caught up with this storyteller par excellence to find out more about his magnum opus and the year-long journey…
CRITICS and viewers were divided in their opinion of John Kani’s telenovela, iNkaba, which was set against the backdrop of the fashion industry, but was unmistakably Shakespearean in its exploration of revenge and hatred between two rival families.
But, sentiments aside, no one can take away from the fact that he made history in bringing telenovela to our shores and getting South Africa’s finest talent on board.
Although Kani’s is a voice that is authoritative and resonates, his knack for good humour makes him approachable and a delight to interview.
He has just finished shooting some scenes from the wrap of iNkaba when I steal him away for a tête-à-tête. Not that he minds much; he loves chatting.
He tells me he is directing his son Atandwa and another promising youngster, Nat Ramabulana, in The Island, which he co-wrote with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona in 1973.
His son plays the role he essayed and for which he bagged a Tony Award.
Kani says: “It’s showing at the Market Theatre and has been sold out every night. I had done this play 40 years ago, before Atandwa was born.”
So how does it feel to watch his son reprise his role?
“You know, when you walk over a piece of ground and something cuts you in the middle of the heart, it feels like you are walking over your grave. That’s how it feels,” he laughs.
“I always say he looks like his mother, but everyone says he looks like me. Last night (Wednesday), Mrs Mbeki, our former first lady, was in the audience and she came to me and said: ‘I didn’t know which one was your son, but as soon as he started speaking, I knew.’”
This isn’t the first time Kani has directed his son on stage. As for Atandwa following in his footsteps, he laughs: “He is planting his own small footprints. He hasn’t reached mine as yet. Those are big shoes to fill. It is such an incredible feeling, handing the baton to the next generation.”
Steering the conversation to iNkaba, which ends soon and will be replaced with another telenovela, iSibaya, he says: “It was a leap of faith. I have never been attracted to television work. Even to appear in series and soapies. I have always appeared in theatre and major movies, writing plays and other things.
“When I was asked to write a concept for a telenovela, I didn’t underestimate my non-experience in the field. To have those first 10 episodes, to see I created it – by John Kani, executive producer, and starring John Kani – it’s a feeling of accomplishment and growth. It’s a feeling of diversifying my talents. I am very proud.”
And Kani says he is glad his conditions, which were negotiated with DStv and Mzansi Magic, especially where the actors are concerned, were met.
He explains: “One of the conditions was that we only use qualified actors. Every shoot, we sit and discuss the road and the journey. Normally, we don’t shoot in sequence. Our series creative producer, Portia Gumede, is incredible as she heads the team. You feel so proud of these people and their commitment to a little story about two warring families.”
What Kani delighted in as well was taking his character, Mkhuseli “MK” Mthetho, to greater depths of darkness.
“When I created the concept, I mounted it on MK and the other on Mzi Khumalo (Ernest Ndlovu). I knew Khumalo was going to be good and MK was going to be evil. And I wanted to go into an area that John Kani is not associated with. I am known for always playing virtuous characters. I wanted to turn it on its head and play this evil SOB Machiavellian character.
“He is focused on growing the business and success and doesn’t mind if it means casualties in his own family.”
He admits: “It’s been an incredible journey for me. iNkaba has made me famous in the living rooms of the people of my country. It was almost like being famous all over again. People stop me in the street and shopping malls to take pictures. Women come up to me and say ‘You are evil’ or ‘You look nice now’.”
With various projects in the pipeline, including a play he is penning, Kani says the most difficult roles in his illustrious career have been that of father and husband.
“My wife always says: ‘Stop acting, this isn’t a stage.’ I’m trying to go back to playing this bloody father and husband thing (laughs).
“And I’m going to practise more and more.”
But it seems MK’s past catches up with him – he is seen lying in a pool of blood, unaware as to who shot him. And the list of suspects is rather long.
Kani says: “We did steal that from the ‘Who shot JR?’ moment on TV. That was the best cliffhanger in the history of soapies.”
In the end, Kani goes out with a bang, on and off screen.
Hats off to him!