Picture: Sara Krulwich, NYT
OPINION - A slim, well-thumbed paperback volume occupies a special place on my bookshelf. Its spine is torn and barely legible, but such is its familiarity that I can dispense with such necessities.

I can find Statements: Three Plays instantly. The plays were Sizwe Bansi is Dead, The Island, and Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act.

Today, I turn to the volume seeking guidance and as a means of paying homage to a remarkable man, Winston Ntshona, who passed away on August 2, 2018. Not a man I knew personally, but one whose impact resonates in so many different ways.

This publication in itself - an Oxford University Press edition - preserves much of what Ntshona represents in the legacy of theatre-making and theatre-going in South Africa and the world.

A black-and-white photograph from the Royal Court Theatre production (1974) dominates the front cover. It shows two men and a camera on a tripod in the foreground. The image captures a vital ephemeral moment which has become as iconic as the three names superimposed above: Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona.

Alphabetical ordering might account for the sequence of surnames, but the image composition contradicts Ntshona’s being named last of the trio. His prominence is asserted through sheer physical presence and position.

Ntshona’s role was invariably to be the foil to Kani’s more urbane, eloquent and flamboyant personae. The two bodies declare what words cannot capture: an extraordinary complementary relationship between two very different individual performers and storytellers.

In the early 1970s, I was an undergraduate at what was then named the University of Natal (Durban) studying Speech and Drama.

The performance of Sizwe Banzi is Dead was to take place in the Student Union Building. I recall (with absolute clarity) my doubts that two actors could project a presence that would fill that enormous space.

I sat in what must have been - from the perspective of the two performers - a relatively homogeneous sea of animated young middle-class white faces.

Some 35 years later, I vividly recall the impact of Ntshona’s voice - deep, rich and resonant - along with his vibrant presence.

Even more memorable was his slow, smile spreading across his face. That silent spellbinding action conveyed the resilience of the spirit, the conviction of simple dignity more than words could express.

Decades later, in July 2002, I met Ntshona. Kani’s solo authored play Nothing But the Truth had just received a tumultuous standing ovation at its Grahamstown Festival première. In the somewhat overwhelming aftermath of the performance and its reception, Ntshona was the first person to be admitted to Kani’s dressing room.

Respectful of the long-standing brotherhood, no one wished to intrude on what these two legends might wish to say to one another.

I was surprised to be called to the dressing room and introduced. Ntshona had one question for me: He wanted to know how it was that I, as production designer, knew the inside of the New Brighton township home as featured in the play.

I could only marvel at the generosity of a consummate artist and his pleasure at having his memory of a particular place being triggered by the creative efforts of another.

In an age that venerates celebrities, public achievement as a marker of status and self-promotion in the arts and culture sector, Ntshona remains a role model of a modesty of being and accomplishment.

The personae that Ntshona created epitomise moral and ethical integrity conjoined with steadfast purpose. The Island (1973) ends with him, in the role of Antigone, saying: “I honoured those things to which honour belongs.”

The words seem fitting as an epitaph to him, his work, artistry and achievements. - The Conversation