The provocative title of Athol Fugard’s play promises Stoppard-esque humour, existential soul-searching and a good dose of death. It doesn’t disappoint. Sizwe Banzi is Dead is totally engaging throughout its short 90-minute running time, with its constant juxtaposing of justified anger with just enough warmth and laugher to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
Set in apartheid South Africa, Sizwe Banzi is Dead provides an angry and poignant indictment of the dehumanising effects of the notorious pass laws which stripped black South Africans of their identity. The two-man show follows the story of the eponymous Sizwe Banzi as he struggles to obtain the work permit which will enable him to feed his wife and four kids back home.
The show begins in 1972 New Brighton, a township of Port Elizabeth, in the simply-furnished photographic studio of Styles (Malcolm Ebose). Here, Styles regales us for approximately half the show with tales of how he came to work in photography. Ebose’s ebullience and enthusiasm are catching – this scene never loses its momentum or feels too long-winded.
The scene is a rollercoaster of emotion, at times hilarious and at others deeply moving. Styles’ stories (recollected through flashback) provide the framework for the rest of the play. Allusion to moments of intense police brutality sit beside comical accounts of taking the photographs of various customers. Like the play itself, Styles’ art has a potent political undertone, which resonates universally: "There is nothing we can leave behind when we die, except a memory of ourselves".
It is this constant interplay of comedy and tragedy which lends the play its unique touch. Without ever presenting moments of violence on-stage, the play evokes a nightmarish world of police brutality and repression through understated means.
The powerful simplicity of Anunita Chandrasekar’s set works particularly well in this context. Style’s studio contains within its whitewashed walls a table and chairs, camera and coat-stand, as well as a world map and some black-and- white photos which are, he tells us, all that remain of these loved family and friends. The map in particular is compellingly turned to reveal a city sky-line “of the future”, symbolising the intensely individual experience of repression, shared by millions across the globe.
Style’s storytelling is broken up and the play takes off in a startlingly new direction when a second man (Dami Laoye) shuffles into his studio. Hesitantly calling himself Robert Zwelinzima, he is persuaded to take a series of photographs which he wants to send back to his wife in King William’s Town. The bulb flashes, and the photograph comes to life: “I’ve got wonderful news for you,” he says. “Sizwe Banzi, in a manner of speaking, is dead!”
The remainder of the play extends this flashback, revealing how Sizwe Banzi reluctantly came to assume the identity of another man in order to continue with his own life. Following an effective costume change, Ebose re-enters as the more severe Buntu. After a night on the town, the two stumble into a corpse in an alleyway, prompting a series of events which will finally result in Banzi’s death, and Zwelinzima’s rebirth. In particular, Laoye’s drunk Sizwe is superb; flawed but intensely likable, his impassioned reluctance to surrender his name and identity provides one of the highlights of whole play.
The stripping and interrogation of identity is powerfully conveyed. As if Javert himself had bellowed it out to music, Zwelinzima’s identity number 3-8- 1-1- 8-6- 3 echoes in the ears of the audience long after the show has ended. The blue pass cards, meanwhile, resonate uncomfortably with our contemporary threat of Brexit, and the reversion to blue passports.
While mostly sustained throughout, the energy was only dissipated by the occasional lack of clarity in line-learning. First-night nerves aside, however, the play is undeniably powerful, achieving much with little. Beneath its political message, the image of the smile, that infectiously uplifting symbol of human connection, endures. As the audience files out, it is difficult to resist Styles’ advice: “You must smile, brother!”