Kani still king of the­atre

Leg­endary thes­pian has new play on stage and film role

Sunday World - - Life - By So­maya Stock­en­stroom

Bey­oncé, Chi­we­tel Ejio­for and Don­ald Glover will be in the pres­ence of great­ness as John Kani takes on the role of Rafiki in the 2019 ver­sion of which re­leases in July.

But Kani says this time he will take pic­tures of the in­ter­na­tion­als to please his grand­daugh­ter.

Hav­ing also starred in

last year, the leg­endary 75-year-old ac­tor says he needs to live to see 107 to be truly “leg­endary”.

“One needs to be care­ful of these hats we are given. I live life as best as I pos­si­bly can, try­ing to make a dif­fer­ence.

“I am hum­bled by the ti­tle but feel I failed when I look around and read how chil­dren and women suf­fer by be­ing raped and killed. I ask my­self could I not have done more to stop this. Un­til I find the an­swer to re­store hu­man­ity, only then can I say I achieved what I needed to.”

Kani, who has fought in­jus­tices most of his life through art, ini­tially set out to be a lawyer and was en­rolled to study at Fort Hare Univer­sity in the Eastern Cape.

But on the day he was meant to leave his New Brighton home in Port El­iz­a­beth, his fa­ther gave him the news that his un­cle had been ar­rested and taken to Robben Is­land.

“My dad wouldn’t have been able to af­ford the tu­ition. I had to man up and was in charge of my own fu­ture.”

Kani says, though, that he comes from a long line of sto­ry­tellers and knew he’d revel in it too. “My grand­fa­ther was a po­lyg­a­mist who couldn’t spell polygamy. His first wife was the bor­ing one, the sec­ond was the ed­u­cated one and my favourite, al­ways preach­ing about God and religion, the third one, was al­ways mak­ing her­self pretty – I loved lis­ten­ing to all their sto­ries,” he says.

He joined The Ser­pent Play­ers where he met Athol Fu­gard. “We were more than just a drama group. We were sol­diers on stage. We used art to speak out against in­jus­tices.”

Kani says he started out as a writer for the group un­til he was called in 1965 to step in for an­other ac­tor who was ar­rested on the day. “I had to per­form the lead in front of

150 peo­ple. In that mo­ment I knew this is where I be­long.”

In a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Kani, Fu­gard and Win­ston Nt­shona,

was born in 1972. The play ad­dressed the apartheid regime’s re­stric­tive pass laws. Kani achieved in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion when he and Nt­shona were awarded a Tony for best ac­tor for this play as well as for

But the same two works saw him be­ing de­tained by the SA po­lice for 23 days. A big­ger blow was when he kissed a white woman in He was met with nu­mer­ous death threats and he was stabbed 11 times.

“Our par­ents were wor­ried … But we were black peo­ple first and be­ing ar­rested was sort of a victory – your first stripe – and the sec­ond stripe would be to join our com­rades at Robben Is­land. It was af­fir­ma­tion that we were on the right path.”

He speaks fondly of the In­dian and white doc­tors who saved his life by treat­ing him in a pri­vate sec­tion of the hos­pi­tal so po­lice wouldn’t find him. “I have searched for them all this time just to say thank you.”

He was de­ter­mined to change the lives of un­der­priv­i­leged ta­lent who couldn’t af­ford to study and opened up the Mar­ket The­ater Lab­o­ra­tory. “I was flooded with hun­dreds of scripts from tal­ented peo­ple who lacked the skill be­cause of bantu ed­u­ca­tion. I would ask them to re­late their scripts in their mother tongues. I am proud that the school turns 30 this year and I was able to see about 200 ac­tors who have gone on to be­come re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful. I still make it a point to at­tend the grad­u­a­tion ev­ery year.”

His new work,

will make its world pre­miere at the The Royal Shake­speare The­atre in Strat­ford, UK, in March. “It took me al­most a year to write – I write by hand. I’m not dy­ing any time soon. I have not won that Os­car yet,” he jokes.

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