Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review of Lantern Theatre's Sizwe Banzi is Dead

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

In the balcony scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the young heroine comes up with a simple solution to the crisis keeping them apart, and pleads with Romeo to "deny thy father and refuse thy name!" Were Romeo not a Montague, the feud that divides their families would not separate the young lovers. After all, she tells him, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Athol Fugard’s 1972 anti-apartheid play Sizwe Banzi Is Dead - now in a stirring production at the Lantern Theatre Company - begs to differ. That is, when it finally gets around to the moral dilemma that drives the second half of the play.

Unfortunately, the audience must first sit and listen to a 45 minute monologue delivered by Styles (Forrest McClendon), the black owner of a photography studio in a Nixon-era South Africa that’s deeply entrenched in the oppressive apartheid system. When he first appears, strutting onto the stage, he begins reading from the South African Herald newspaper, commenting on current events to remark on something old, something new. The former: more troubles plaguing Zimbabwe, which Styles dismisses with a shrug; the latter: tensions in America. "Let them elect a black man President," he remarks, adding, "then we’ll take notice. Same year hell freezes over."

A woman let out a hasty retort, and McClendon masterfully handled it, clearly addressing the audience while telling us stories about the six years he worked at a Ford automotive plant. Finally wanting to regain his self-respect as a man, Styles decides he needs to become his own boss, and opens the photography studio. Battling roaches (all pantomimed in an almost clowning fashion), he then tells the stories of many of the customers he’s served. "I offer a storeroom for dreams" he tells us, and is about to launch into another recollection when a knock at the door interrupts his speech.

The man who’s arrived? Rober Zwelinzima (Lawrence Stallings), formerly known as Sizwe Banzi. Dressed in Millie Hiibel’s fresh linen suit, salmon colored shirt, and derby hat wrapped in plastic, he wants to send a picture to his wife in Port Elizabeth, informing her that "Sizwe Banzi is dead." And with a cute trick of Janet Embree’s and David O’Connor’s lighting, finally, the production embraces Meghan Jones’ shantytown set of corrugated tin roofs and fences and become a play.

McClendon disappears to return as Buntu, a friend who harbors the fugitive Banzi. Banzi’s passbook (the apartheid equivalent of a National I.D. card) declares him ineligible to work anywhere but Port Elizabeth, where a drought has eliminated most jobs. He can’t feed his family, and skipped town illegally, looking for work in New Brighton, where he meets Buntu.

Though helped along by Peter DeLaurier’s sharp direction, a pair of excellent performances, and the stellar lighting, the play plods through long segments of seemingly meaningless exposition, requiring the audience to think about what’s happen "Do you have a letter from a white man who is willing to give you a job?" Buntu asks. "No? then go back to Port Elizabeth." After Buntu explains the Kafkaesque system of laws that imprisons black men in cordoned districts of the country, the pair stumble upon the recently murdered corpse of Zwelinzima. And Banzi must make a decision: steal Zwelinzima’s passbook and adopt an identity that will afford him work, or continue to live as a fugitive.

Though helped along by Peter DeLaurier’s sharp direction, a pair of excellent performances, and the stellar lighting, the play plods through long segments of seemingly meaningless exposition, requiring the audience to think about what’s happening while it’s happening. Banzi asks "does that (pass)book tell you that I am a man" before later arguing "I cannot lose my name."

But it’s Buntu who lays out the problem clearly. That name cannot feed your family, find you a job, or keep you from being arrested, he tells Banzi. So lose it. And yet, Banzi persists, as his identity as a human being seems to hold some key to his life.

The Lantern’s excellent production capitalizes on the well-played moral dilemma and analysis of all its implications, but ultimately, the first half weighs down the strength of this performance. I can imagine the implications that Styles character bears on the show: under apartheid, he sells unattainable dreams, photographing the illiterate Banzi holding a newspaper in front of a painting of the "city of the future."

But it’s a bad drama of apartheid politics, unevenly delivered. All the real action of this play could have taken 30 or 40 minutes, gravitating on what both Buntu and Banzi see as the unfortunate moral payoff: "If someone was to offer you the things in life that would make me or my family happy in exchange for a name, wouldn’t you swap?"

Though this production proves otherwise, Banzi’s dilemma ultimately seems easy. Buntu asks, "who are you to a white man...but a ghost?" And Sizwe becomes Zwelinzima. And why not? Romeo’s life would have been infinitely easier (and perhaps not ended in suicide) had he acceded to Juliet’s request.

Buntu nails it on the head when he says "there’s nothing we can leave behind except the memory of ourselves." But what kind of memory is it? Schopenhauer once wrote that "we remember our own lives a little better than we do a novel we once read, little more." Seen in that light, the decision seems easy. A man might have to die in order to live again, but it’s Fugard’s play that makes Banzi's dilemma into a hard decision.

No comments: