If you've been curious to find out a little more about actor, writer and activist John Kani, you've come to the right place!

It’s been ten years since John Kani and Antony Sher last appeared together at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and now the pair are together on stage again in Kunene and the King, which has recently opened in the Swan Theatre.

Kunene and the King marks 25 years since the first post-apartheid democratic elections in South Africa, and reflects on a quarter century of change in this country. Did you know that, as well as performing in it, John Kani also wrote this two-hander production?

To celebrate John’s return to the RSC, we wanted to share some amazing facts about the award-winning playwright, actor and activist.

John has won a Tony Award

John’s work on both Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island in the 1970s saw him win a Tony Award for Best Actor, and a Tony nomination for best play, alongside his friend, the late Winston Ntshona.

Both plays premiered in South Africa (1972/73) before transferring to the Royal Court in London a year later. After a critically acclaimed run, they then transferred to the Ambassadors, before winning The London Theatre Critics Award. The shows then arrived on Broadway, at the Edison Theatre, to critical acclaim, with John and Winston co-winning the Tony Award for Best Actor.

He's everyone's favourite monkey in The Lion King

In the live action version of the Disney classic coming out this year, John voices Rafiki, whose name means “friend” in Swahili, and is the wise old mandrill who iconically presents Simba above Pride Rock at the beginning of the film.

Wakanda Forever

“You're a good man with a good heart. And it's hard for a good man to be king” – King T’Chaka

You may have seen John in the role of King T’Chaka in Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) and in Captain America: Civil War (2016). T’Chaka is the father to T’Challa – aka Black Panther – and was formerly the King of Wakanda. He is also not the only member of the Kani family to appear in the Marvel franchise. The actor playing the younger version of King T’Chaka is actually John's son, Atandwa Kani.

John also played an integral role in advising on the accurate use of Xhosa* in the film.

*Xhosa is an Nguni Bantu language with click consonants and is one of the official languages of South Africa

John has been at the RSC before

The last time John Kani was at the RSC was the same year Matt Smith was named as the new Doctor Who, Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United, and an airliner landed safely on the Hudson River in New York.

John last appeared in Janice Honeyman’s The Tempest in 2009 as Caliban, with Antony Sher playing the role of Prospero alongside him. 10 years on from their last RSC show together, Janice, Antony and John have now reunited for Kunene and the King.

Before this he was also in Hamlet during the 2006 Complete Works Festival - a production which was directed by fellow South African Janet Suzman and provided a vivid reflection of South Africa as the Rainbow Nation. 

The Tempest, 2009 - Photo by Ellie Kurttz

He has threats made on his life

In 1985 John appeared in a production of Miss Julie at the Baxter Theatre, Cape  Town, which marked the first on-stage occurrence of a black man kissing a white woman (Sandra Prinsloo) on stage under the apartheid regime. Under the apartheid, interracial relationships and marriages were forbidden and against the law. Not only did the majority of the South African audience walk out of the play, but John also received threats on his life, public vilification and was even attacked, receiving eleven stab wounds.

…and he has a prosthetic eye

After Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island – productions that raised several questions about South Africa’s political system, particularly in relation to apartheid – had finished their runs in the USA, John returned to South Africa where he received a phone call from his father inviting him over to his house.

On his way there, John was intercepted by the police who beat him and left him for dead. During the attack he lost his eye and now wears a glass prosthetic.

He was the first black actor to play Othello in South Africa

“I’d just done a play called The Native Who Caused All the Trouble at the Market Theatre, when Janet Suzman came to me and said: “it’s about time,” to which I say, “what…?”. “To do the big one of course!” and I say “Janet, what are you talking about?” and she says: “Othello!” to which I say, “Oh no! I carry eleven stab wounds on my body, have survived assignation, 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… But then I went home and thought “it’d be nice to do it all again.” I told Janet I had one condition. I said I would only do it if I was the only black actor.” – John Kani

Seven years before the end of apartheid, in 1987, John became the first black South African actor to play Othello on stage. Performing opposite Joanna Weinburg as Desdemona, and directed by Janet Suzman, the play ran at the Market Theatre and opened to rave reviews – but John still received threats from the authorities.

Kunene and the King plays for a limited run in the Swan Theatre until the 23 April 2019

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