Preview: Sizwe Banzi is Dead

Alex Sorgo 6 February 2018

Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a two man show that explores the concept of human identity against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa. TCS were invited to discuss the exciting production with the director Anunita Chandrasekar and to watch a gripping rehearsal.

Athol Fugard’s play opens in Styles’ Photography Studio in 1970s apartheid South Africa. In an everyday scene, a customer, Robert Zwelinzima walks in to get his photo taken for his wife. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Robert is not his real name or identity but one he’s had to steal from a man he’s found dead. The dead man’s pass book had a work-seeker’s permit which Sizwe needs in order to stay in the town and find work despite the fact that this is far away from his family and children. Sizwe enters the photography studio as Sizwe Banzi but leaves the shop as Robert Zwelinzima.

The play explores the concept of human identity in a place where people’s lives are controlled by their native identity pass books. This sort of passport or identity card had to be carried by every Black South African but it limited where they could travel and work thus severely restricting their freedom. This was a large intrusion on people’s everyday lives and the play presents the characters conflicting with, facing up to and working around the difficulties that this system imposed on them.

In the scenes that I saw, Sizwe (Dami Laoye) struggles with his necessary identity change ‘How do I live as Robert? How do I live as another man?' which has overtones of Shylock’s reaction of his treatment by the Venetians (Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare). In contrast, Buntu (Malcolm Ebose) in an almost fairy godmother like way shows Sizwe how to make the system work for him, that human identity is fluid here, that his name is not what matters but his number in the pass book. In order to work and function within a highly bureaucratic and unfair system, Sizwe has to give up himself and Dami Laoye plays a torn man beautifully, drawing you in and exposing bare his very human desire to be himself.

It’s a play that is very well suited to the Corpus Playroom. As an audience member, you are almost part of the story which makes you really feel Sizwe’s plight. Even the opening where Styles’ the photographer talks us through the dream-fulfilling quality of photography, testament to Ebose, feels as though you are having coffee with a friend who is telling you a series of interesting stories.

Dami Laoye and Malcolm Ebose were both rare and wonderful storytellers who truly gripped the listener. The way they spoke the lines were haunting. Sizwe says that the identity change has made him feel like a ghost. Buntu, (Malcom Ebose), tells him ‘All I'm saying is be a real ghost, if that is what they want. Spook them into hell, man!"

Sizwe Banzi is Dead is the Corpus Playroom Mainshow from Tue 6 – Saturday 10 Feb (7pm).