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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - TONY JACK­MAN

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.

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