John Kani and Sandra Prinsloo had to be escorted into the parking lot after each performance of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. There was a fear that enraged right wingers would attack them for their stage embrace.
It was 1985, in the middle of the violence of the last decade of apartheid. Prinsloo was getting obscene hate mail and both had received death threats. The only people allowed to see them being intimate, as the play required, would be Scandinavians after top local director Bobby Heaney filmed the unedited Miss Julie for Finnish and Swedish TV.
Prinsloo was a superstar, and her role was to seduce Kani, who played the manservant to her 18th-century mistress. At the Market and Baxter theatres, the two couldn’t even kiss. They could only move up close – such was the danger. Everything else was left to the imagination of the audience who, at least once, staged an orchestrated walkout.
Kani – who had already been in theatre for 20 years – was frank but angry when he told a journalist, “I said to myself as they left, God bless them.”
Those memories are still close to the celebrated actor, writer and director as he lovingly works on a fresh production of The Island at the Market. By coincidence, an acclaimed show now called Mies Julie has just finished its run at the same theatre.
It’s those kinds of stories from deep in the pit of oppression, that Kani had to reinvigorate in his direction of the Athol Fugard play that helped to make him and fellow actor Winston Ntshona international stars 40 years ago. The Island, which tells with humour and compassion of the experiences of two prisoners on Robben Island, is a South African classic.
When Kani got back on stage after the controversies of Miss Julie in 1986, it was to do The Island again with Ntshona at the Market. Both had already won Tony Awards for it in 1975, and it had been more than a decade since they had opened for the original staging at the legendary Space Theatre in Cape Town. It had gone on to critical success at the Royal Court Theatre in London and then at Broadway’s Edison Theatre where it ran for more than 50 performances.
But this version, 30 years later in the same beloved theatre, is special. Not only does Kani’s son, Atandwa, play John, which was Kani’s original role, but it happens in the year Kani turns 70: his King Lear moment.
“Over the years, many young actors have approached me,” Kani tells. “Vusi Kunene, Sello Maake ka Ncube and Seputla Sebogodi. They all said, ‘Hey Bra John, let’s do The Island and we want you to direct’.
“But somehow, my heart was not in it or I was busy with something else, so I’d say ja, ja, we’ll do it. Then, last year, two young men came to see me, saying they’d love to do The Island and wanted the rights and so I said I would talk to Athol (Fugard) and Winston (Ntshona).
“The young men spoke to the theatre about doing the play and were asked who would direct, so they said, ‘wait, we’re coming back just now’ and they came back to me and said, ‘would you direct?’. I thought and I thought and then I said ja, yes I will.”
Kani said he was surprised when he remembered that he was first on stage doing The Island with Ntshona 40 years ago, in 1973.
“My first thought was, no, it can’t be 40 years. I still remember it so well. We both won the Tony.”
But that only added to his sudden need to do it again – in these political times, with all that history behind it.
“When we started working, one of the reasons I agreed was that I had always relished the opportunity to bridge the gap. These are today generation actors who were not even born in 1973. Now I had the opportunity to link history, to show them this is what we did ... the motivation, the passion, the cause, the everything.
“If you say ‘protest theatre’ today, a young actor looks at you and says, oh puh-leese. Are you gonna go on again about apartheid and how you people suffered? Can we get on with it?
“This time, I would be able to explain to them the journey that led to the artists’ rise for freedom of expression as enshrined in our constitution. It was an opportunity to explain to them how much that cost the actors of my generation and brought us to where we stand today.
“We started working over December and I only gave them a day off on Christmas and New Year. Normally, I send actors to do research if we are doing the Greek or Elizabethan classics or Shakespeare, but this time, I told them go and find out more about the apartheid era. It was a challenge. The actors were faced with the history of the entire country, so they asked, ‘why would we go anywhere when the library is with us here in the rehearsal room?’
“So the first week of rehearsal was used to interrogate the text and investigate the story, and I sat there on a chair with a hot light on my head while they were asking me questions. They wanted to know things like, why would we have wanted to create a play of this nature when the chances of performing it were zero, but of being arrested were 100 percent? What was so stupid about me and Winston?
“But I was saying, take a trip with me in time, to that moment in the 70s, into that conspiracy when artists were silenced and people seemed at that time to be toeing the line. It was the height of the Botha and Vorster regimes. As actors, we gave up our own responsibility simply to entertain. We had to stand up and become activists as well.
“Even successful actors were not exempt from oppression. And I wanted them to know that while the Struggle seemed to put more emphasis on those who were militant, those quieter ones, believing it was possible to grapple with our issues without violence, were also contributing.
“So I was trying to teach them to be angry, trying to teach them to hate, trying to give them a cause ... something they would feel inside. And their eyes were twinkling and I was just crossing my fingers thinking, I hope this goes in. I was amazed as soon as we started, in the second and third week they seemed to have got it.
“Slowly within the progress of rehearsals, the importance of freedom of expression had hit home. Even though The Island is a play within a play of a piece written over 2 000 years ago (Sophocles’ Antigone), the questions remained the same. Here we were, debating the secrecy bill and the concept that if you lose a bit of your freedom, you could lose it entirely.”
Kani, whose younger brother Xolile was killed in 1985 when police opened fire at a funeral in New Brighton in Port Elizabeth, has always been an important voice for freedom, especially in the arts. He described himself as “a political animal” even in the days when he and Ntshona ran for their lives out of Uncle Tom’s Community Centre in Soweto, where they had been performing Sizwe Banzi is Dead to a packed audience. Despite their flight, they were arrested.
“When I watched them in final rehearsal, I sat at the back, very, very quietly and couldn’t help but warm up a little bit in the eyes. When I looked at Nat (Ramabulana), he looked like Winston. When I looked at Atandwa, I simply thought, there’s a young man I know who used to look like that ... you know that’s the blur in my mind. And then, oh by the way, there’s something between me and that actor!
“The funny thing is that in the 70s when we were travelling all over the world with The Island, Winston and I made a pact that if we were ever sitting in front of the old age home, we would love to know our sons were doing this play. So when I called him and said Atandwa and Nat were doing it, Winston said, ‘oh what a pity my son went into business’.”
Kani misses Ntshona. They last performed The Island together in 2000 at the Royal National Theatre in London.
“I don’t think a day passes without me talking or thinking about Winston. When he tells you a story, you wait for the ending, then you get the sense of what he was telling you. If he tells you a joke, we say, ‘Winston, can you get to the punchline, we’ve got work to do’.”
Kani is at peace about turning 70 in August.
“I’ve earned the right to be wrong and not care,” he laughs. “People always ask, ‘when are you writing your memoirs?’, and this is the year for me to think about it.
“Seventy is beautiful for me. I am truly, at last, an elder.”