The entertainment industry greats paid tribute to one of South Africans great actors, John Kani at his birthday celebration.
Award winning actor, director, playwright, and Wits honorary doctorate receiver John Kani celebrated his 80th birthday in a packed theatre. The celebration took place in his namesake, the John Kani theatre, in the Market Theatre laboratory on August 30.
The event was opened with a performance by the South African jazz musician Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, followed by an address by Atandwa Kani, his son and an actor in his own right. “We all here to celebrate this big man’s birthday on behalf of the family, I just want to say tata, happy birthday Mlotshane,” he said.
The Van Toeka Af living legends recognition series is an initiative by the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture’s which recognises living legends and the work they have done. Dr Kani’s 60 year career in the dramatic arts played out on stage.
The celebration included different snippets of theatre work that Kani had worked on and won accolades for, among these performances was the infamous Sizwe Banzi is Dead, performed by Atandwa and Nathienal Ramabulana on the night. The play co-written by Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona and Kani, explored the themes of identity, self-worth, racism, and suppression.
This is the play that won the Tony Award for the best play in 1975. It premiered in October of 1972 and ran 52 times in New York, winning the award three years later.
Kodwa spoke fondly about Kani and the work he has done for art and how he has used art to inspire change through his work during the apartheid and post-apartheid era. “He is the living testament to the power of art, to inspire change, to transcend boundaries and to foster unity,” he said.
Another outstanding theatre performance of Shakespeare’s Othello was performed by Atandwa, Kate Liquorish and Michael Richard. In 1987, Kani’s role as Othello, in particular the infamous kiss shared with Desdemona (a white woman) in the play, faced backlash. The kiss came just two years after laws prohibiting interracial marriages and sex were repealed by the Apartheid government. But segregation was still so ingrained, that many audience members walked out during performances reported the Chicago Tribune at the time.
Kani wrapped up the evening with a performance of a play he wrote called “Nothing but the Truth” which looked at the relationship complexities between the black people that stayed in South Africa and the ones that went into exile.
After his performance he made a speech on the importance of sustainability in the arts. “We have to industrialise the arts, it cannot be a side job because we don’t want to do a BSc [Bachelor of Sciences], it has to be a business, an industry that I can tell my children yes because you’re going to survive, make money and be rich.”
FEATURED IMAGE: John Kani sits down to have an interview with Wits Vuvuzela. Photo: Nonhlanhla Mathebula
After sold-out performances at the National Schools Festival in Grahamstown and rave reviews hot off the Cape Town run, Hayani is heading for Johannesburg, bringing with it compelling performances and a heart-rending home-grown story of a generation nearly lost and forgotten, and which is yearning to be heard.
Hayani is directed by Warren Nebe and presented by the Drama for Life Company Laboratory, a research-based project aimed at developing young professional theatre performers, writers and directors at Wits University.
The Market Theatre’s main stage was the platform where six diverse minds gathered to discuss migration, a topic central to all of their individual work.
The last day and the last panel discussion of the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival helped to make audience members and authors alike reflect on the movement of people in and out of cities and countries.
The poor accommodating the poor
Wandile Zwane from the City of Johannesburg’s Migrant Helpdesk, used an interesting anecdote from a conversation he had had with a woman, illustrating a point made earlier about migration being a situation where the poor are accommodating the poor. [pullquote]”…people migrate to places with a gravitational pull…”[/pullquote]
The woman talked about the hierarchy that existed when it came to where one slept in her house. As a young child one was in the main bedroom, the older one got you would move to the dining room and the kitchen to make space for the younger ones. Eventually one would land up in the outside room and from there move on to their own house with a spouse.
Unfortunately her marriage had not worked out so she had to move back to the outside room with her kids, but because there was an immigrant living in that room she had to go back to the kitchen. The story points to one explanation of the animosity that exists around migration in South Africa.
Chinua Achebe’s book ‘There was a Country’ was the theme around which the conversation around which migration had to bend itself.
The panel consisted of writers who had threaded together stories and books, all zooming in on migration and themes central to resettlement. The panel discussion was largely based on the different writers’ works and their experiences of bridging political and personal narratives in their storytelling.
A young writer making waves in the literary world, NoViolet Bulawayo, said emergent personal narratives are based on political events, and that it was not possible to separate the two in one’s writing. [pullquote align=”right”]“Johannesburg is a migrant city”[/pullquote]
While the works of the six on stage were central to the discussion, engagement with audience members opened up the dialogue and brought up issues that were left out in the initial conversation.
Photographer and self-proclaimed book lover, Victor Dlamini (@victordlamini) made a poignant point from the floor, which steered the conversation to a meaningful point. He commented on people who are migrants themselves taking issue with people who migrate. He used Johannesburg as an example, saying most people who are in this city are not even from this city. “Johannesburg is a migrant city,” he added.
Panelist and writer, Achmat Dangor responded by saying that he agreed with Dlamini and pinned negative attitudes around migration on mechanisms of ‘othering’. He added that people migrate to places with a gravitational pull because of new ideas in that specific place. This is always the case with ‘big cities’, the activity and promise of economic emancipation lure people in, be it across borders or provincial lines.
Another audience member asked why was it that only Africans were considered immigrants. He did not understand why the Chinese and Europeans who come to this country were not treated with the same hostility that “our brothers” were.
In response Kwanele Sosibo (@KwaneleSosibo), journalist at the Mail & Guardian, simply said “we do it to ourselves”. He went on to narrate an anecdote about how people in an Eastern Cape community believe in measuring people according to certain pedigrees. Mining house recruiters divided them up according to body size, using pedigree determine who’d make best workers, exemplary of systematic ‘othering’.
MILK and Honey, directed by newly minted Market Theatre chief James Ngcobo,tackles the paradox of memory and blackness in a swift and surreal 70 minutes of time travel.
The exposition of the play is prosaic without being boring, as it sets out the main character’s dilemma.
Thekiso Moekesti is a young and ambitious lawyer—needing only to relocate a rural community from their mineral rich land on behalf of his company to gain unqualified membership into the comfortable, nouveau rich stratosphere he and his fiancé Mamasti desire.
The problem is the paradox; the irony being Thekiso’s invidious position of being an “Other” amongst others.
Thekiso is haunted to a point of sleepless anxiety by the ghosts of his ancestors urging him to find his motherland and reconnect with the soil. Doubtless, his ancestors are also not pleased with his role as neo-coloniser.
Through a number of dream sequences and flashbacks we are whisked back and forth between past and present; between Thekiso and Mamasti’s impending marriage and the pastoral, whimsical courtship between Thekiso’s grandparents.
Both are set against the large shadow of displacement: in the present, Thekiso must ‘negotiate’ a community out of its land; in the past, his grandparents are kept from marrying by their separate tribes’ reaction to violent appropriation of their land by colonisers.
Thekiso’s physical journey to the land of ancestors, and his psychological journey through the story of his grandparents: through their experience of being black, and the painful experience of displacement.
A choice of interpretation
We are given two sides of a familiar coin. With one side of the coin, we might purchase the lessons and victories of irony. The catch is that while these things are on offer, they are at the same time concealed from us.
With the other side of the coin, if you wish, you can purchase a crudely political interpretation of the play.
Ignore theme, and consider only the context.
Choose this route, and Milk and Honey becomes an empty marker of the Land Act centenary; reminding us of the effects it still has today and nothing else; a justification for certain kind of political racialised myopia.
Thankfully, this is exactly what Milk and Honey is not.
Milk and Honey is part of the 969 Festival showing at the Wits Theatre
Oh Captain my captain: Director of the Wits Theater Gitanjali Pather Photo: Mfuneko Toyana
Attendance at Wits Theatre’s 969 Festival have been far from overwhelming.
This is despite the fact that plays being staged were hand-picked from the best productions recently on stage at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.
Director of Wits Theatre and curator of the festival, Gitanjali Pather, said she was disappointed that out of student population of 30 000, 5 000 of whom live on campus residences, the audiences have only been about half full.
Lady on a mission
“My chief challenge is to change this… I love this university and I want to make Wits Theatre and festivals like the 969 integral to the life of the university,” said Pather, who surprisingly—for all her enthusiasm and passion for Wits Theatre—is only five months into the job.
But once she began explaining why she thought theatre was so important, her enthusiasm became easy to understand.
“The theatre is an arena of contestations, of opinions, of ideas, of world views, of realities and it requires us to think. No one walks away from theatre unchanged,” she said speaking about the differences between theatre and more popular entertainment mediums like television.
“We are a lazy world. We are constantly bombarded by media and we also want instant gratification. We want to be told what to think and the level of interaction with our world is miniscule.”
Pather explained that since her four years as CEO of the Market Theatre, and right through her “sabbatical” from the politics of being a theatre manager, when worked in advertising while still teaching theatre, she always felt the stage offered a powerful avenue for social activism.
“What people take away from a performance is so unique. The act is such a personal one. It is a relationship established moment by moment between an audience member and the performance. Everyone walks away with something completely different. That is the magic of theatre and the creative arts.”
A history in the arts
Pather’s 27 years in the arts run almost parallel to the 30 year history of Wits Theatre; the coincidences telling and almost poetic.
“When I entered the profession, the arts and the cultural aspirations of the majority of people were never seen on our stages,” said Pather.
However, she also recalled the journey South African theatre has made from protesting minority rule, to offering therapy and hope for the masses.
“It allows people to experience change and catharsis and insight”, she said.
More importantly, she said, the arts offered students a “hemispherically balanced” experience, drawing on left brain and right brain.
“Wits needs to be a cosmopolitan and sophisticated campus. Students need to know that education goes far beyond the perimeters of a degree.”
Witsies, according to her, have everything to gain from attending the 969 Festival.
The festival closes with Skierlik showing on Saturday and Writer’s Block on Sunday.