FIFTY years ago, Athol Fugard’s play Sizwe Banzi is Dead was playing its sensational first run at London’s Royal Court, after its triumph in Cape Town. Now it has been revived by Mayflower MADE in Southampton, as part of the Black History Month celebrations, running at MAST from Friday 6th to Saturday 14th October, before a short three-venue UK tour.
John Pfumojena directs the play, written by Fugard in collaboration with two African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, and also stars opposite Wisdom Iheoma.
It is set in Port Elizabeth in Apartheid South Africa where Sizwe Banzi, an African worker, has a passbook stating he was supposed to return home three days ago. Without a valid passbook, Sizwe cannot work and therefore cannot support his wife and four children. When he finds a dead body with a passbook validating work in Port Elizabeth, Sizwe must decide whether his name defines who he is, or he should steal the dead man’s identity in order to provide for his family.
We meet him as he steps into the photographic studio where he must make that decision.
John Pfumojena, who was seen in Peter Pan at Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre as well as performing in San Francisco and New York, was recently musical director, composer and arranger for the Olivier award-nominated production of For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy.
At MAST he plays the roles of Styles and Buntu, with Wisdom Iheoma as the titular Sizwe Banzi.
“This revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead holds a profound resonance in today’s world. Drawing from my personal journey, it began with a line from the play that etched itself into my soul at the age of 16. ‘A black man stay out of trouble? Impossible… our skin is trouble.’” says John. “The enduring relevance of this statement is palpable, as we witness the persistence of racism and white supremacy. The play, originally conceived during the Apartheid era, remains a poignant commentary on racial oppression.”
“This revival isn’t a mere historical re-enactment. It mirrors the unsettling reality of our times, where racial prejudice thrives, media fuels hatred, and racial profiling persists. Sizwe Banzi is Dead emerges as a contemporary narrative, portraying the dreams and struggles of its characters amidst external pressures. Our revival invites you to witness the essence of humanity, with characters who navigate life’s fragility amid political turmoil.”
MAST Chief Executive and Creative Director Michael Ockwell says: “We are incredibly pleased to have John Pfumojena directing this play, and to see his vision come to life. This is an exciting development at MAST as we expand our produced work. Having such a fantastic creative team makes this venture all the more exciting!”
After the run at MAST, the production will tour to Exeter’s Barnfield on 16th and 17th October, Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 24th and 25th October) and to Theatre by the Lake in Keswick on 27th and 28th October.
Photographs by Craig Fuller