JOHN KANI AND MICHAEL RICHARD SLAY DRAGONS IN THE JOBURG THEATRE’S KUNENE AND THE KING

DIANE DE BEER

PLAY: KUNENE AND THE KING

PLAYWRIGHT: John Kani

CAST: John Kani and Michael Richard

SINGER: Lungiswa Plaatjes

DIRECTOR: Janice Honeyman

LIGHTING: Mannie Manim

SET AND COSTUME DESIGNER: Birrie le Roux

VENUE: The Mandela at the Joburg Theatre

DATES: Until June 19

To sit in a buzzy theatre and wait for a play to start in Gauteng has been a rare thing these past few years, but it is seriously starting to happen again.

And what a thrill to witness two of our greats, John Kani and Michael Richard, sparring with each other in a play written by Kani.

He has, as many times before, read the times right and written accordingly. When someone of his stature and experience decides to tell our story in whichever way he chooses, we should listen. He is scratching at the heart of our much maligned nation and does it in a way that draws his audience in and has them laughing and crying with great regularity.

Staged in the big Mandela Theatre, where I have witnessed many musicals in my time, and perhaps one or two plays at most, I was nervous about the space and if it could hold the play.

But with the knowledge that racism in whatever form is even more relevant now than at any other time and should be talked about – especially by those who live the experience  –  the space embraced the play and the people. With only 50 percent capacity allowed, the theatre wasn’t packed, but enough of a crowd was there and they were vocal.

It is the kind of work that allows for that. Two old men, one white, one black, meet under less than favourable circumstances with the one dying and the other employed as his caregiver. Nasty old patterns creep in from the start as the white patient realises a (black) intruder has just entered the room. Stereotypical? Yes, but that’s what we need in these circumstances and Kani is wise enough to know how to tell this story and make his point with great force.

You realise from the start that there’s no subtlety here, but the thing is, racism doesn’t and can’t demand that. And I would much rather be hit full-on over and over again with a problem that persists so viciously through the ages, than sit with the denial countries like the US have to tackle now. They’re still arguing about slavery!

With our apartheid history and if the audience witnessed in the theatre that night are a sample of who we are, we at least know what racism is and that we have it in this country in abundance, but we’re also far enough down the road that we can sit together and both laugh and cry bitterly at what people do to one another. Even when facing death.

Kani has cleverly told his story with all the familiarities around an everyday situation. He is dealing in broad strokes so that you don’t miss the awful stupidity. And then you put it in the hands of two accomplished actors who can pull it off – brilliantly.

It is the stupidity of so much of human interaction that allows Kani to bring enough seriousness to the topic to never veer too far away from what we are dealing with. He has a distinct speaking and writing voice and it’s a thrill to experience both. And now he has added grace and elegance to the ageing process to have one watch in awe how he slips onto his knees and pops back again with the alacrity of someone much younger.

It is the skills he has honed with his abundance of stage smarts through his decades of dedication to his craft which are joyous to experience time and again. And fortunately for those of us who love live theatre, while he enjoys the honours of Hollywood and is picked for the big ones these days, he always returns to his first love. And we benefit gratefully.

Richard is another who always returns when offered the chance – and this was a good one. He does curmudgeon well and switches easily between biting his caregiver’s giving hand and dismissing his own foot-in-the-mouth statements while ignoring the impact on someone who lived through the worst of apartheid at the harshest receiving end.

That’s what this play is about, mirroring those tap-dripping daily ignorant remarks by careless people who have no clue how their behaviour impacts the lives of others.

Tired of people asking when recriminations about apartheid will stop, I turned to my truthsayer, who said: When the victims say so.

And especially in circumstances where one group mistreats and denies another even the basest of human rights, those on the other side, whether participating or not, should listen and learn. And this is what Kunene and the King does so magnificently.

There’s nothing here that we haven’t heard before – in abundance and regularly. The point is that we still hear and witness many of these loathsome behaviours on a daily basis. We’re 27 years into our democracy, a number that rings harshly in South African years.

It is 2022 and we have had a couple of dastardly isolating years during which to reflect, if nothing else. That’s why a play like Kunene and the King is a blessing especially when it is delivered in such a generously heart-warming yet heartfelt fashion.

Lungiswa Plaatjes

The production is gently moulded by director Janice Honeyman, who is at her best when having to tell a story. She added the sass of design wiz Birrie le Roux and lighting genius Mannie Manim to add the visual strength as well as a magnificent musical interlude to soften the edges and complete a magical circle.

Kani and the team have  staged a  joyous theatrical experience in spite of the seriousness of the subject. That’s the way to make us laugh and learn.

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