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‘Kunene and the King’ is a thought-provoking show that tackles race, class and politics

Dr John Kani. Picture: Supplied

Dr John Kani. Picture: Supplied

Published May 31, 2022


Theatre doyen Dr John Kani says he is overjoyed to finally bring back home his critically-acclaimed play “Kunene and the King”, which recently kicked off at Joburg Theatre.

The national tour has officially begun with the show next heading to the Playhouse Theatre in Durban, Mandela Theatre Complex in Gqeberha and then Stellenbosch.

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Kani has plans to take the show to all nine provinces before it hits the global stages again.

“Kunene and the King" has been in the making for the past decade and Kani says he couldn’t be any more excited to bring it back home following the successful debut in London, in 2019.

“In 2009, I was doing ‘The Tempest’ at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the home of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon.

“I was working with Sir Antony Sher and I thought, I’d love to write something for the two of us, and I forgot about it for 10 years,” says Kani, in between the chuckles.

“So in 2019, I called him and said: ‘I’ve got something I’ve written.

“It’s a two-hander in the genre of the old classics of ‘Sizwe Bansi is Dead’ and ‘The Island’,” recalls Kani.

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Directed by Janice Honeyman, “Kunene and the King” is a thought-provoking piece that shines the spotlight on issues of race, class and politics.

This is a deeply personal story that speaks to the experiences that most South Africans have lived through for decades.

The show marks just over two decades since black South Africans took to the polls to cast their votes for the first time.

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He explains: “When I write a play, I ask myself questions. I asked myself, What am I celebrating in 25 years of our democracy?

“I thought, okay, let me ask a black person, ‘what do you celebrate?’ and his response was: ‘A lot. I’m out of hell. I’m free. I’m a citizen. I’m a member of the human race and the global community.

“Yes, there are things that I have not gotten right yet. There are things I wish I could have got right… But on the general whole, I have something to celebrate. There’s a story to tell’.

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“I then asked a white person (the same question) and he had a grocery list of all the things that are wrong with this country.”

“He said he had no reason to celebrate whatsoever. It's the economy, crime and corruption. That conversation fascinated me, and I then put it together in the context of a play where a white actor, very brilliant, very Shakespearean, is about to do a play in Cape Town.

“But he has a terminal disease and the doctors have told him he hasn't got long to live. He thinks ‘I can still make it’, but he needs someone to look after him in his house.

“So he calls the nursing agency to send him a note and the agency says, ‘We will send Sister Kuhn’.”

A true South African story unfolds when an ailing Jack Morris, played by Michael Richard, discovers that his new nurse, ‘Sister Kuhn’ is a black retired health professional Lunga Kunene.

“I am Lunga Kunene. I'm a retired nursing sister from Charlotte Maxeke. I worked in the oncologist cancer section. I get a call to go and look after this guy.

“So I ring the bell. He sees the black man. He wants to call the police. He says he's been robbed. And I'm trying to explain. I'm the nurse. He says, ‘No, I'm waiting for sister Kuhn.’ I say, No, no, no, it’s sister Kunene,” explains Kani.

“South Africans are wonderful. They mix at work. They go to little parties. They do things generally, but not in their private spaces, which is called home.

“They're that little place that remains very black in Soweto. The other little place becomes very white Killarney, Hyde Park or Sandton.

“So now you force them to be in the same space, to live with each other, and maybe they could find a way forward on how to create this so-called rainbow nation. That's why I wrote the play.”

Having spent most of his adult life during the apartheid era, Kani says, he used some of his personal experiences to bring to life the compelling tale of Kunene and the King.

“I'm 79 years old. I've lived through apartheid. I was 51 years when I voted for the first time in 1994.

“I can't sleep at night. I've got five decades of apartheid nightmares. So whenever I confront a given situation, I always want to tell a story that my grandchild could understand where we come from. So that they could understand the price it costs us for this democracy that sometimes we take for granted.

“So that's what I do as a writer. I'm an artist. So when I go through these difficulties of race, conflict, gender issues, stereotypes, and’s what I went through in my life.”

Kani says he takes pride in his work and cited creating work for himself as one of the main reasons why he doubles as the lead and writer of the show, something he encourages young creatives to do.

“I wrote ‘Sizwe Bansi is Dead’, I wrote ‘The Island’. I wrote ‘Nothing but the Truth’. I wrote ‘Missing’ and I starred in all those plays. I'm not going to create a blockbuster and not be in it.”

“Kunene and the King” is currently playing at the Joburg Theatre until June 19 before heading to the Playhouse Theatre in Durban, Mandela Theatre Complex in Gqeberha and then Stellenbosch.

Tickets are available through Webtickets.