REVIEW: Sizwe Banzi is Dead (Court Theatre)

What defines identity, your name or your soul?

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Court Theatre presents
  
Sizwe Banzi is Dead
 
by Athol Fugard
directed by Jon OJ Parsons
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through June 13th  |  tickets:  $35-$56  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The grand, although accidental, Athol Fugard Chicago experiment ends this season with Court’s production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, one of the South African writer’s lesser-produced works. Like The Island (which closed at Remy Bumppo in March – our review ★★½), Sizwe was co-written by the original actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who ended up with Tony Awards for both plays.

sizwe-banzi-is-dead008 Court Theatre’s production is anchored by two masterful actors as well, Chike Johnson and Allen Gilmore. It’s a powerful, if slow, exploration on what makes us human beings. Director Ron OJ Parsons’ steady hand keeps the course of the verbose piece, which could easily be upset by weak performances. Johnson and Gilmore mire themselves in Fugard’s semi-absurdist world, though, and make the gritty political play shine and resonate.

One of the most striking features of Fugard’s drama is the lack of action. Instead, it works as a dissertation on the sins of apartheid, as well as linking into some bigger issues like identity and freedom. The play starts with a half-hour monologue from Johnson as Styles, who used to work at a New Brighton Ford plant but now owns a photography studio. He opens his door to the next customer, the weathered Sizwe Banzi (Gilmore), who needs a picture to send to his wife. We then see the taciturn visitor’s backstory, revealing how Banzi’s ID booklet expired, which makes him an illegal resident of the city. While out with his friend Buntu (Johnson again), the two come across a dead body. Things get really complicated when they discover the body has a booklet stamped with the work permit Sizwe needs to stay. Buntu hatches up a plan to steal the identity, and Sizwe must decide if he wants to kill off his old self.

The play is marked by discourse and meditation on identity and what and who defines it. Athol Fugard questions the importance of a name. According to Gilmore and Sizwe, the decision to envelop someone else’s humanity is a tough choice, a struggle of the soul. Buntu, always the pragmatist, sees it as a simple issue of survival. Pride, he attests, isn’t for those who have to support a family.

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The play definitely sits in the world, trudging towards Sizwe’s final decision. The pacing of the production is right for the play, which is a slow-burning piece. If not very exciting, it is very powerful. But it helps to be prepared. Compared to Fugard’s more based-in-reality Master Harold…and the boys (put on TimeLine Theatre, the first of the Fugard Chicago productions – our review ★★★½), Sizwe drags us through the muck. The payoff is worth it, but it can be a tough journey.

Gilmore and Johnson have brilliant chemistry between them. Gilmore’s Sizwe is awkward and a bit slow, but he has a puppy-dog quality about him. Johnson is sharp and brimming with charisma as Styles and Buntu—he is the one who really forces the play forward. There is a great scene in the middle of the play where the two enter the audience and share their excitement of being treated like human beings at a bar, adding some theatrical spice to the mix.

The two actors carry the burden of this production on their shoulders, as well as the audience. They do it in grand fashion. The only glaring issue with the production stems from the play itself, which can lull rather than incite. Considering you are now forewarned, you can prepare yourself to see a moving theatrical dissection of the politics of racism, which brings to mind events taking place over in Arizona. Does our identity boil down to what’s on our birth certificate? Or does our humanity burn somewhere deeper in our conscious?

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   

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Extra Credit:

Related articles and Interviews:

 

Cast

Allen Gilmore (Sizwe Banzi)
Chike Johnson (Styles / Buntu)

ALLEN GILMORE returns to Court Theatre having previously performed here as Argante in Scapin, as Cyrano in Cyrano (co-produced with Redmoon Theater), and as Hamm in Endgame. He very recently performed at Yale Rep as Pantalone in The Servant of Two Masters, and prior to that as The Player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at Writers’ Theatre. He next travels to Intiman Theatre in Seattle for its production of The Doctor in Spite of Himself.  Allen wishes to dedicate his work to all of in the shadows.

CHIKÉ JOHNSON was last seen in Ruined, a co-production between the Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club.  Some of his past theater credits include: The Crucible, Huck Finn, and The Unmentionables (Steppenwolf Theatre); The Unmentionables (Yale Repertory Theater); Topdog/Underdog (Renaissance Theaterworks); King Lear (Milwaukee Repertory Theater). TV and film credits include: Law & Order SVU, Law & Order, Prison Break, Verizon High Speed Internet commercials, Detour, Brooklyn Shakara, The Machinist, and El Traje.


Artistic Team

Jack Magaw – Set Design
Christine Pascual – Costume Design
Lee Keenan – Lighting Design
Nick Keenan – Sound Design
Kelli Marino – Dramaturg
Sara Gammage – Productions Stage Manager
Jonathan Nook – Assistant Stage Manager

JACK MAGAW works as a freelance scenic designer and also teaches design at The Theatre School at DePaul University.  Recent design credits include Wait Until Dark (Court Theatre), All My Sons (TimeLine Theatre), Evie’s Waltz (Geva Theatre), This Wonderful Life (Indiana Repertory), Radio Golf (Pittsburgh Public Theatre), Winesburg, Ohio and A Flea in Her Ear (Kansas City Rep), Pure Confidence (Florida Studio Theatre), Souvenir (Skylight Opera Theatre), Four Places (Victory Gardens Theater), Better Late (Northlight Theatre), Love’s Labor’s Lost (Clarence Brown Theatre), and Picnic (Writers’ Theatre).  He received Joseph Jefferson Award nominations for Picnic and Bus Stop (Writers’ Theatre), Fences (Court Theatre), and Seven Guitars (Congo Square).  Upcoming projects include Funny Girl (Drury Lane Oakbrook) and A Life (Northlight Theatre).

CHRISTINE PASCUAL is delighted to be working at Court Theatre and with Ron once again. Previous Court Theatre shows: The First Breeze of Summer, Flyin’ West. Recent credits include: The St. James Infirmary at Congo Square, Four Scenes in Three Acts at Roosevelt University, True West and Topdog/Underdog at American Theater Company with Congo Square, Our Lady of the Underpass at Teatro Vista, Capriccio Barocco for the Yale Baroque Opera Project, Jarred for Teatro Luna at Chicago Dramatists, Ten Cent Night at Chicago Dramatists, The People’s Temple at American Theatre Company, and Fast Forward at About Face Theater.  Other companies she has designed for: Defiant Theatre, Remy Bumppo, Centerstage Baltimore, Apple Tree Theater, Infusion Theater,Silk Road Theatre Project, Steppenwolf, Goodman, Infusion Theater, Pegasus Players. Upcoming productions include: Sanctified at Congo Square Theatre and Blackbird at Victory Gardens Theater.  Christine is an Artistic Associate of Teatro Vista and member of the United Scenic Artists Local 829. For examples of her work, visit http://www.ChristinePascual.com. She wishes to thank her family for their unwavering support.

NICK KEENAN is delighted to return to Court Theatre after designing last season’s The Piano Lesson.  Designs include Goodman Theatre (Strange Interlude, assistant for Mirror), TUTA (The Wedding), Next (Return to Haifa, End Days), Rivendell (These Shining Lives), BackStage, Collaboraction,  Raven, Apple Tree, A Red Orchid, the Neo-Futurists, the side project, and New Leaf Theatre, where he is a company member.  Nick engineers sound at the Goodman, teaches at Northwestern’s Cherub program, and authors a blog (theaterforthefuture.com) discussing arts sustainability and technology in theater.

SARA GAMMAGE is always delighted to return to Court Theatre. Previous Court credits include The Mystery of Irma Vep, Guys and Dolls, Fräulein Else, Travesties, Man of La Mancha, Lettice and Lovage, Raisin, Flyin’ West, What the Butler Saw, The First Breeze of Summer, and Wait Until Dark. Other Chicago credits include Edward II at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Botanic Garden at the Greenhouse Theater, A Christmas Story at Theatre at the Center, Once Upon a Time in New Jersey at Marriot Theatre, Dessa Rose and Tale of the Allergist’s Wife at Apple Tree Theatre, the pre-Broadway tryout of All Shook Up, Sink, Sank, Sunk with Redmoon Theater, The World Goes ‘Round with LaRed Productions, and The Last Five Years with Syndicate Productions. She recently finished another season at Peninsula Players Theatre in Door County, WI; credits there include Wait Until Dark, Is He Dead?, Rumors, and The Lady’s Not for Burning. Sara is a proud graduate of Northwestern University.

JONATHAN NOOK loves coming home to share in the work with the family at Court.  He has worked on productions of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Wait Until Dark, The Wild Duck, Caroline, or Change, The First Breeze of Summer, Carousel, Titus Andronicus, What the Butler Saw, and Thyestes.  Other stage management credits include Sex with Strangers, The 3rd and 4th Annual First Look Repertory of New Work, Superior Donuts, Huck Finn (Steppenwolf); Radio Macbeth (Court/SITI); Measure for Measure, Arms and the Man (American Players Theatre); Misalliance, The Taffetas, Moonlight Room, Take Me Out (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre).

 


Note: all bios and “Extra Credit” courtesy of Court Theatre’s website.

     
       

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