Review – Sizwe Bansi Is Dead – Young Vic

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How do you pick plays to see? Do you go to everything starring a favorite actor? Do you see all of the productions of a certain theater (like The Royal Court or The Donmar)? Or do you operate from a series of imaginary (or real) life lists, such as “everything by playwright X” (for me this is Pinter, Ibsen, and Shakespeare) or … something else?

In addition to playwright driven goals, I’ve got an ill-defined life list that is “all of the great plays.” Even if membership in this list comes (and but rarely goes) depending on what I learn about as I continue on as a theater viewer, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead was absolutely on it. I missed out seeing it at the Young Vic in September, so this time I jumped on the bandwagon and bought tickets before it opened. I mean, the last time had completely sold out, and they brought it back; when it comes to deciding whether or not this was a quality production, to me the dial was definitely turned toward “yes.” And I’ve seen other plays by Athol Fugard and found him an infinitely watchable playwright, soaked in the core mysteries of what makes people tick and a creator of fully believable plays enhanced (not limited) by the seasoning of his own national background.

This brings us to his most famous work. As ever, I did not research it before I went: other than “quintessential apartheid play,” I was in the dark. I walked into the theater, diverted by a sign (and guard) pointing one way for blacks, and another for whites. The couple in front of me went into a different door than I did. Ah yes, I thought: the world of the Scottsboro Boys; my country did this, too.

The play is practically split in two halves, the first a folksy introduction to the life of a typical black man living under apartheid. Perhaps he was not truly typical, for our protagonist, Mr Styles (Tonderai Munyevu) is employed at a good job in an industrial plant. I enjoyed his story of the daily indignities he endured and his comic ways of keeping his spirits up in spite of it … though eventually he decides to leave it all and become the owner of a photo studio. I wondered how realistic it was that any particular individual could become a successful sole proprietor during that era, and if things were actually more peaceful then than they are now. And it was all very upbeat. Was I being served up Fugard’s idea of the happy oppressed South African, all full of laughs and irony? I was disappointed that such a slight (if entertaining) play had garnered so much attention. On the other hand, given that I was expecting it to be a pile of gloom and doom, I was pleasantly surprised at the tone.

As it turns out, this is very much the sweet coating to to the much weightier story underneath. A second character, played by Sibusiso Mamba, finally appears … but after all of this time waiting, he, too, is not Sizwe Bansi! What the hell, was I actually at a Southern Hemisphere take on Godot? Two actors, no Bansi, NOBODY IS EVER GOING TO DIE and I am going to be stuck listening to Mr Styles making jokes about cats and cockroaches.

And then with a flash of the camera, we are taken to the world of South African in 1972, when the permits on your tribal identity card – and the word of the white man – determined where you could live, where you could work, if you could see your family, whether you starved or scraped by. And at last we get to meet Mr Bansi, and we, the audience, can sit back and wait for the unpleasantness that is watching a character we have grown attached to die on us.

Seeing the Kafkaesque struggles of the pathetically decent family man Sizwe Bansi as he attempts to overcome the white bureaucracy’s heroic attempts to keep him penniless and his children hungry, I couldn’t help but think of the modern British state, working so hard to save us from dangerous, non-British people like Mark Harper’s cleaner and fighting to make sure that loving married couples aren’t together unless the British partner earns some predetermined amount (set, again, by the bureaucracy). Because, you know, government wants to support families by keeping them poor and, better yet, living apart, so their children only know mom/dad via Skype.

Now, I’m not going to deny that I saw how this story was going to go from a mile off. I did. But what I didn’t think was that as I sat there, watching it, I would feel so strongly that this play was not just about the injustices of the apartheid era – for so it is – but so universally about the injustice of any government that stops treating people like human beings and starts treating them like numbers – like problems, as “targets to be reached” (does this one sound familiar) with no accounting for the impact on their lives. I’ve had hoop after hoop put in front of me to allow me to stay in this country, supposedly to “make sure I’m gainfully employed,” but, in truth, to try to keep every opportunity for me to be one more number on the negative side of the balance sheet. This country has managed to get up in arms about identity cards, but fights to escaped from being governed by the EU’s laws on human rights. It’s shameful.

Sizwe Bansi: still incredibly powerful. Still relevant. 100 percent tip to toe a must see.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, February 15th, 2014. It continues through March 15th, although it is almost entirely sold out.)

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