A new life for ‘The Island’ at arts festival
John Kani directs his son in the seminal play that he acted in four decades ago in Cape Town
FOR ONE magical hour at the National Arts Festival this week, it was like being whisked back 40 years to the old Space theatre in Cape Town and seeing, first-hand, the start of the journey taken by a young John Kani and Winston Ntshona, searing on to our consciousness the truth of what it was like to be incarcerated on Robben Island.
Only this wasn’t the pair of actors who would go on to perform The Island in the West End and on Broadway, winning world acclaim and helping cement collaborating writer Athol Fugard’s reputation abroad and at home. This was a new generation telling the same story to a new audience. And playing John, the eponymous role in the work, was Atandwa Kani, John Kani’s son, while Nat Ramabulana portrayed the role of Winston.
In the director’s chair was John Kani himself, and the three of them turned the old script into a world-class production that deserves to travel just as far and wide as the original.
Young Kani and Ramabulana are riveting throughout, and Kani sr is in negotiations with Cape Town theatres to secure a run in the Mother City for this Market Theatre production.
The play started its life at the city’s venerable Space and this production deserves to come “home”.
Good news for Capetonians is that the acting duo’s own successful play, Hayani, is headed for the Baxter, opening on August 8 in the Golden Arrow Studio until August 31. In this workshopped play, Kani jr and Ramabulana tell their own stories of growing up in a South Africa in which, for the most part, apartheid was something they knew about, but had little or no personal experience of.
‘For us, it was an opportunity to grapple with something from a time we didn’t belong to, a time that we are a result of… ‘
At a discussion after the premiere of The Island in Grahamstown this week, the duo told how it was their idea to do The Island, and that they approached “Doctor Kani”, as Atandwa refers to his celebrated father. “Doc”, in turn, said they must approach Fugard for his permission.
John Kani’s first thought, the veteran said, was that it was an old piece and wondered how relevant would it be now. “This is 40 years later,” John Kani said. “Then I thought, ‘that’s silly – I’ve just done The Tempest, and that was written in 1611’.”
Atandwa Kani, who has the stage presence and arresting authority of a young Forest Whitaker, said of The Island, “For us, it was an opportunity to grapple with something from a time we didn’t belong to, a time that we are a result of… We were born during apartheid but have no recollection of it.” So the pair live the experience through the elder Kani’s own experience.
Working with his father was a strange thing. “I don’t know this man very well, the artist, Dr Kani, it’s very different from being ‘dad’ at home’. I call him ‘ Doc’ when we’re working,” Atandwa says.
To illustrate the difference between a black actor performing on stage during the Struggle years and the equivalent experience for Atandwa Kani and Nat Ramabulana now, “Doc” Kani observes: “The first time I worked with Atandwa was in a production of Othello at Wits. When I played Othello in 1987 I landed in detention for kissing a white woman on stage.” John Kani remarks that he “always thanks God that he looks like his mother”.
He may look like his mother, but he sure as hell acts like his father.
Jackman has won a Standard Bank Ovation Award at the Grahamstown Festival for his play An Audience with Miss Hobhouse, with Lynnita Crofford in the title role and directed by Christopher Weare.
FORTY YEARS LATER: Atandwa Kani plays John, the eponymous role in the work, while Nat Ramabulana portrays the role of Winston.