john Kani

John Kani returns to the Market with a new play about political intrigue, happy families and the tricky concept of home, in Missing…, writes Theresa Smith.

JOHN Kani got his big break as an actor 40 years ago when a fellow Serpent Players actor was arrested.

Kani knew all the lines because he was the prompter, in addition to assisting the director, Athol Fugard, as a stage manager.

“When I stood on the stage – it was a moment when I had a monologue – I stood there and felt myself in a kind of quiet happiness that said ‘this is what I was born to do’,” said Kani.

This started the thespian down a road which led via London to New York, various film sets, awards and several celebrated South African stage performances. But the idea of writing was always there, bugging at the back of his mind.

He originally wrote the drama Nothing but the Truth as a way of working through his own pain and anger about his brother’s death in 1984. That drama took on a life of its own – it is now a set work for high school pupils and a successful movie dramatisation – and reignited his passion for writing.

His latest work, Missing… takes its cue from several stories Kani has heard over the years; whispers about this one feeling left out of the political process, that one who was sidelined for sticking to his principles.

Mostly, though, it’s the stories of the exiles he met over the years in New York bars, backstage in London, Paris kitchens, all hungry to talk about home, that he wants to bring alive on stage.

“It always fascinated me, this thing of ‘we’re going home one day’. I never voiced the thought, ‘not in your lifetime’,” said Kani in an interview at the Baxter Theatre.

“The release of Nelson Mandela is the ‘yes, in my lifetime’ moment for this (stage) family. Now the family has to confront this idea of ‘what is home?’,” he explained about what happens in Missing…

Stage character Robert Khalipa is not recalled to South Africa to be part of the negotiations, and the intrigue and political infighting that ensues makes you wonder how the miracle of Nelson Mandela being released could be the catalyst for a happy family to fall apart.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s Kani would sit and talk to people like Miriam Makeba, reminiscing about “that shop on the corner” or “is that barbershop still there?”, and he’d not have the heart to say everything had changed.

“They cling to this memory, it’s the only thing they have, these threads of memories.”

That translates to the stage character Khalipa, who also has to figure out where his parents have been buried and where his extended family now find themselves.

“I see Robert as a soldier who fought the war for liberation, and now that war is over, the struggle is won. South Africa is a democracy, but Robert is still missing in action, missing his roots, missing who he is,” said Kani. “I wanted to tell the story of the man who couldn’t come home because they forgot him.”

When I walked into the rehearsal room at the Baxter, the actors were talking about forgiveness. Director Janice Honeyman called them back to order to work through a scene in which Kani’s character tells his family he will return to South Africa after more than 30 years in exile in Sweden.

Kani wasn’t originally going to play the role, but Honeyman would tackle the job only if he did, so now he works again with one of his favourite directors.

They’ve worked out a way over the years for him to be writer and actor – for the first two weeks of rehearsals, he is the writer, giving input and suggestions, but thereafter the writer leaves and only the actor remains.

“I know it’s a political thriller, Janice’s strength is people, her focus is, ‘how do we keep this family together?’ So Robert’s challenges, rather than his politics, become her focus,” said Kani about his choice of director.

“I’m taking a happy family and placing them in a context of South Africa’s cultural and racial challenges. What I am trying to do with Robert is create an impossible situation.

“One, he doesn’t get called back by the organisation; two, he is married to Swedish Anna, who is a successful and rich businesswoman; three, he has a beautiful daughter who is about to get married to a Swede. Now the question is, ‘how do I get them back to New Brighton for them to live with me because that was my dream?’”

Missing… previews tomorrow, opens on Thursday and runs until July 13 with performances at 8pm.