REVIEW: Sizwe Banzi is Dead (Court Theatre)

What defines identity, your name or your soul?

 sizwe-banzi-is-dead012

  
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.

sizwe-banzi-is-dead001 sizwe-banzi-is-dead003
sizwe-banzi-is-dead006 sizwe-banzi-is-dead011

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: ★★★
   

sizwe-banzi-is-dead007 

Extra Credit:

Related articles and Interviews:

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: The Island (Remy Bumppo)

Friendship comes first in revival of Fugard prison drama

 the-island2

Remy Bumppo presents:

The Island

by Athol Fugard
directed by James Bohnen
through March 7th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Athol Fugard’s The Island begins with prisoners Winston (Kamal Angelo Bolden) and John (La Shawn Banks) shoveling sand into wheelbarrows on opposite sides of the stage. When each prisoner’s wheelbarrow is full, he empties it into the other man’s freshly dug pit, returns to his original position, and then repeats the entire process. their only redemption the foreman’s whistle. This opening sequence is monotonous and continues for nearly ten minues, but is extremely effective in showing how South Africa’s Robben Island prison exhausted its population into complacency. When not being mentally and physically tortured, the two cell mates rehearse a stripped-down Antigone for the prison’s talent show, with Winston as Antigone, much to his disdain, and John as her dominating uncle Creon.

The relationship between these two men is the anchor of the production, directed by James Bohnen, and Banks brings a mature, caring energy to the stage that nurtures Bolden’s more brutish Winston. What this season’s FugardChicago mini-festival – which includes Timeline Theatre‘s Master Harold…and the Boys  (currently playing) and Court Theatre‘s Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (this past May) – has shown thus far is the playwright’s ability to develop beautiful friendships from the dreary circumstances of apartheid South Africa, and the two actors of The Island capture the complicated dynamics of their characters’ friendship.

The Island, like most of Fugard’s work, is heavy on political commentary, and while the writing is intelligent and thought-provoking, the language often becomes very formal, too much like a reading of an essay rather than real human dialogue. During the performance of Antigone this feels appropriate, but feels out of place when it appears in the scenes of the two men speaking casually, and Fugard’s intellectual perception of prison ends up sacrificing much of the visceral pain seen in the opening in favor of bookish monologues that veer into heady territory.

the-island1

Athol Fugard is able to probe into the emotional damage inflicted by the prison system when John learns that his sentence has been reduced, joyous news that means an end to the bond that Winston and he have formed over the past two years. Bolden’s reaction is pitch-perfect, and the overwhelming sense of hope and relief shared by the two actors in the initial moments following the announcement is one of the show’s highlights. But as the painful reality of Winston’s life sentence begins to sink in, envious feelings become hostility, putting the duo’s production of Antigone at risk. As the men overcome their anguish and shame together, they reveal how friendship can heal the broken spirit, a theme so prevalent in the playwright’s work that it must be true.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Creative Team: Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, John Kami (playwrights), James Bohnen (Director), JR Lederie (Light Design), Tim Morrison (Set Design), Rachel Laritz (Costume Design), Victoria Delorio (Sound Design)

Cast: La Shawn Banks, Austin Talley, Kamal Angelo Bolden

 Recommended production links:

Remy Bumppo’s 2009-2010 Season: Friendships tested….

Remy Bumppo’s

2009-2010 Theatre Season

 

2009-10: Friendships Tested…

Heroes Heroes
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by James Bohnen
October 14-November 29
(buy tickets)

 

The Island The Island
By Athol Fugard
Directed by James Bohnen
January 27-March 7
(buy tickets)

 

les liaisons Les Liaisons Dangereuses
By Christopher Hampton
Directed by David Darlow
March 17-May 2
(buy tickets)

 

 

Box Office: 773.404.7336; Website: www.remybumppo.org

NOTE: All performances at the Greenhouse Theater 

Timeline Theatre Announces 2009-2010 Season

Timeline-Logo

TIMELINE THEATRE COMPANY
ANNOUNCES 2009-10 SEASON

ALL MY SONS
by
Arthur Miller
directed by
Kimberly Senior
August 31 – October 4, 2009 (previews 8/27 – 8/30)
Praised along with Death of a Salesman and The Crucible as Miller’s masterpieces, this 1947 Tony Award winner for Best Play returns to the Chicago stage for the first time since an acclaimed Broadway revival last season. A middle-class American family struggles to deal with the loss of one son during World War II and the desire of another son to now marry his brother’s fiancé. As family members and those closest to them try to move forward, an explosive secret from the father’s past threatens to unravel everyone’s hopes for happiness. This powerful drama is a haunting exploration of business ethics and one’s moral responsibility to the larger community.

WHEN SHE DANCED
by Martin Sherman
directed by Nick Bowling

Travel to the Paris of 1923 for this gorgeous and incredibly funny portrait of legendary dancer Isadora Duncan. The so-called mother of modern dance is desperate to keep herself financially solvent and to realize her dream for retirement: a school in Italy to teach young dancers her art. Through a multi-lingual script of great heart and appeal, Sherman mixes the high comedy of a colorful cast of characters with a poignant view of the importance of the arts to move and inspire us. Through the eyes of those in Duncan’s life we glimpse her greatness and how she touched so many lives when she danced.

‘MASTER HAROLD’ … AND THE BOYS
by Athol Fugard
directed by Jonathan Wilson

Recipient of a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 1982, ’Master Harold’ … and the Boys is considered Athol Fugard’s masterpiece, valued for both its universal themes of humanity and its skilled theater craft. Set in South Africa during the 1950s era of apartheid, it depicts how institutionalized racism can become absorbed by those who live under it. A white 17-year-old spends time with two African workers he has known all his life, and through their conversations on one rainy day we see what unites and divides them. The play’s beautiful and haunting dialogue and message of hope also inspire the recognition that there is much work to be done to bring people of different races together.

THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION
Chicago premiere
by Aaron Sorkin
directed by Nick Bowling

From the creator of A Few Good Men and The West Wing comes this fascinating new play direct from Broadway. It’s the story of two ambitious visionaries — Philo T. Farnsworth, an Idaho farmboy, and David Sarnoff, head of RCA — battling each other for the rights to one of the greatest inventions of all time: the television. Through corporate espionage, family tragedy, financial disaster and the thrill of discovery, these two larger-than-life men compete for fame and credit and become part of a decision that would change America, and eventually the world.

A fourth play and the season’s schedule are still to be announced.

Says TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers:

“We have put together a season filled with bold ideas and tremendous heart and hope and guts.  Through a steadfast commitment to our mission, TimeLine aspires to be a place for people to come together, to feel a sense of community and to engage in a dialogue about our place in history. The work on our stage allows audiences to lose themselves in a story from the past in order to perhaps better understand where we are today and where we might go tomorrow. During our 2009-10 season, we look forward to exploring some defining moments of the 20th Century together — moments of art and beauty, of friendship and understanding, and of innovation and exploration.”

Creative team biographies after the fold.

Continue reading