The two actors and Director from our new play Kunene and the King, set in South Africa, all grew up under apartheid. They talk about how theatre has changed attitudes.

Kunene and the King, a new play by John Kani, directed by Janice Honeyman, is set in 2019 South Africa during the aftermath of apartheid. It tells the story of Jack Morris (Antony Sher), a terminally ill 65-year-old white actor living a relatively comfortable life in the suburbs of Johannesburg, and Lunga Kunene (John Kani), a 69-year-old black retired male nurse.

Today, the life of a black South African actor and writer is very different to the way it was under apartheid. John explains how the actors would move from township to township, putting on one-night performances before they moved on to the next place.

He says: “Many times, the play would be stopped. Many times, some of us would be detained. Sometimes they didn’t even stop the play, they just put police in front of the door and people stopped coming because they could see they’d be arrested.”


Janice Honeyman, Antony Sher and John Kani meeting in Johannesburg to work on the script for Kunene and the King

John made history by playing Othello opposite a white actress in the Market Theatre in 1987 at the height of apartheid. When the Director, Janet Suzman, asked him to take on the role he said to her “'I carry 11 stab wounds on my body, have survived assassination, been detained and have to be careful even walking the street because everybody wants me dead. So thank you, but I am not going to do this play.'”

He reconsidered and agreed to take on the role, on the condition that he was the only black actor. Before the play opened, the police came to John’s house asking whose idea it was to perform a play in which a black man would kiss a white woman (Desdemona) on stage.

John told them: “Well the Market Theatre wanted me to play Othello. I’m just an actor.”

He explains: “The police would go through the play with me – ‘this woman comes in and you hold her hand and you kiss her. And on page 16 it says that just before you leave you kiss her. And then in the part where you arrive in the other place you kiss her for more than 14 seconds. And we can see your tongue moving in her mouth – that’s not in the play.’

“So I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my god, the policeman has read the play!’ And then I said, ‘You know sir, when Sir Laurence Olivier played the role he put a lot of black stuff and polish all over the face, and each time Desdemona tried to kiss him she left a black smudge on the beautiful white makeup – I don’t have the problem.’ And he said to me ‘Shut up!’ and went to the next page.”

John Kani and Antony Sher in rehearsal for Kunene and the King.

"Theatre has played a huge part in changing attitudes in South Africa, and eventually, along with The Struggle, in changing the government."

Politics and plays

Janice says: "I believe South African theatre contributed to the change in government, particularly the shift towards democracy. The Space Theatre in Cape Town and The Market Theatre in Johannesburg were instrumental in changing opinions of theatre-goers.

"At The Market Theatre we were incredibly aware of where theatre could take us. In those days it was restricted by the Censorship Board, and I remember many times when we had to fight to keep performances open. Theatre was one of the first places where black and white people were in the same physical situation, responding to one experience together.

"Some plays almost became political rallies. The responses to them were so immediate and visceral, and sometimes affected their outlook to South African life considerably. And so, I do think theatre has played a huge part in changing attitudes in South Africa, and eventually, along with The Struggle, in changing the government."

Antony says: “There was a remarkable moment when theatre changed attitudes in South Africa and in the world about apartheid: the two plays which John Kani co-wrote with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona in the 1970s, and which toured internationally - Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island."

Both these plays opened at The Space Theatre, Cape Town in the early 1970s and later played in the UK and on Broadway. 

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead is about a man who needs to fake his own death and take someone else's identity if he wants to survive in a country that limits freedom of movement and work opportunities for its black citizens. The Island is set in an unnamed prison and tells the story of two cellmates, one who is soon to be released and the other who faces several more years in prison. 

Antony adds: "I can’t think of another example in theatre history when two plays educated audiences about an abhorrent political system in the same way, not through solemn preachiness, but through human stories, funny and sad."

Hopes for the future

Janice says: "My hopes for the future of the country have never changed. I want the country and its people to be positive and completely integrated. I want people to be able to live their lives freely without any scar of racism."

John adds: "We need to actually sit down and analyse what we did do, didn’t do and what still needs to be done. We didn’t know the state of the nation in 1994. The majority of black people were so far removed from the reality of the economy or management or the legal system. All we knew was running and fighting. And in 1994 we were suddenly in the ruling party with no experience whatsoever. I remember one guy saying “How can Mandela run a country? He’s never even run a shop! What does he know about it?” Which was true. Whilst we made incredible strides ahead, we also tripped on our own shoelaces.

"It’s been 25 years, and yes, we have a country and a government. We have institutions, and we have all the pillars that hold us together, but inside that crowd there’s a lot of things we still need to do. And I think we realise it now more than ever." 

Kunene and the King runs in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 23 April. The production runs in The Fugard Theatre, Cape Town, South Africa from 30 April. 

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