IT may be more than 50 years since Athol Fugard wrote his anti-apartheid play Sizwe Banzi is Dead, but as John Pfumojena, director and performer of the new production at MAST Mayflower studios quickly realised, the play has powerful resonances in the 21st century world we live in.
White South African Fugard wrote the play with actor John Kani and Winston Ntshona for performance in Cape Town in 1972. Two years later it was named best play of the year by the London Critics society and has since been named among the best plays ever made. Audiences at MAST, the studio theatres of Southampton Mayflower, had a chance to see the remarkable work, which is touring to Exeter and Keswick during October.
Pfumojena, the 34 year old actor, singer, director, musician and composer, has recently written and directed the music for the Olivier-nominated production of For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy, which transferred to London’s West End.
In the Made at MAST production he not only directs but plays the roles of the car factory worker turned photographer Styles and the politically award Bantu. He is joined by Wisdom Iheoma in the title role. After a hilarious opening section, in which Styles describes the preparations for a visit to the South African factory of Ford Motors by the scion of the family, we watch him setting up his photographic studio, in a cockroach-infested building next to an undertakers shop.
And in through the door comes a man in a smart white suit, with stetson, all ready to have his photograph taken to send his wife and family. His name, he says, is Robert … but that’s not quite true.
His given name is Sizwe Banzi, but that man doesn’t have the stamp of permission to work in the town, and is supposed to have returned to his own town several days ago. Trying to avoid arrest by the authorities, he stays with a friend of a friend, Bantu, who takes him out for a drink. On the way home the two men happen on a dead body, and the body has the papers with the necessary stamp.
The design, by PJ McEvoy, incorporates projections and light-shows, and Pfumojena uses his prodigious talents to incorporate live song with recorded music, emphasising the timeless relevance of the play in a time when segregated and exiled people must make ever more horrific decisions in an effort to save themselves.
Both men give charismatic and electrifying performances in this classic work. See it if you can, at Southampton, or at Exeter Barnfield Theatre on 16th and 17th October.
Photographs by Craig Fuller