INTERVIEW: John Kani – Kunene and the King at the RSC, writer and actor

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John Kani. Photo: RSC

South African actor, activist and playwright John Kani (The Island, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, Black Panther) stars alongside fellow South African Tony Sher in his new play Kunene and the King, which is on at the Swan Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company until 23rd April. He talks to Gill Sutherland about his life and the play, which marks 25 years since the first post-apartheid elections in his homeland.

Without a doubt John Kani is one of the most heroic and talented people I have ever met. Not only is he a brilliant actor and writer he is a man of tremendous honour – an artistic warrior during the evil apartheid regime in South Africa. In person he is warm and friendly — he chuckles infectiously, chats animatedly and tells the most jaw-dropping stories. He’s the sort of person that makes you feel better about the world having met them. Here’s an edited script of our meeting over coffee at the RSC offices…

This is your third time at the RSC, how is it to be back?

It’s incredible! The first time I was here we did Hamlet [in 2006] and I was playing Claudius and we had a great time. I met lots of great people and we had a discussion about Shakespeare and the impact of Shakespeare in African cultures — or actually the other way round, as African cultures are much older than Shakespeare!

The second time was in 2009 when I was Caliban in The Tempest and Tony [Sher] was Prospero. During a conversation over lunch I said to Tony it’s been great to work together but I would love to work on something that I have an idea for both of us. It’s for two actors: one is sick and one is not, one looks after the other… and I never thought or mentioned it again.

Then at the beginning of last year after Black Panther and before doing Lion King [John is the voice of Rafiki], I thought right I need a bit of time to myself and then the idea surfaced again, and I did a first draft of Kunene and the King.

Why did you think now’s the time?

It’s a genesis — stories live within you as a writer and some of them get overtaken by other stories that want to be told much sooner. Because I weave King Lear through this story of two South Africans, I thought I’ll send the draft to Tony [who played Lear at the RSC last year] for his comments. Suddenly the whole thing exploded! ‘We want to do it!’ said Tony… that’s how it all began.

So Tony got excited – and cast himself in it!

Yes, he was very enthusiastic! So then I came in June last year to spend time with Tony – and I got to see his final performance of King Lear, which was a great gift that the RSC gave me.

What was your first encounter with Shakespeare?

I grew up around Port Elizabeth and I can remember at my high school in 1959 my teacher saying we’re going to do Julius Caesar in isiXhosa [the melodic South Africa language known for its distinctive clicks and John’s native tongue]. There was great excitement, I had never read Julius Caesar before, just Romeo and Juliet over and over – as a love story it wasn’t considered politically threatening.

Once in a while a brave school would do The Merchant of Venice – the problem with that was the innate racism; the white apartheid government would not want us to interpret that Shakespeare was on our side!

After I finished school I bumped into the ‘English version’ of Julius Caesar – because I had known the ‘original’ in my indigenous tongue… and I was a bit let down by Shakespeare. He didn’t capture the pathos, power and the use of the language of that isiXhosa does. [Here John delivers the ‘O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth’ speech first in English then in isiXhosa – the latter is ear-poppingly brilliant, and wins the quote-off!]

So when I was writing Kunene, that was what I was trying to capture: my attitude towards this great writer, and who is just like African great storytellers.

How did you get into acting?

I am descended from great storytellers. My grandfather died at 101 — he had three wives and could not spell polygamy! So I had Grandma One: she was traditional — who we are and where we are from, we had great kings and kingdoms. Grandma Two was education and religion. Grandma Three was beauty and dignity – she was from the Bonda tribe and so beautiful. They all taught us different things – the storytelling came from these three women in my life.

When did you decide to be an actor?

When I finished school I was preparing to go to university when unfortunately my uncle – who was like my elder brother – was arrested for being a member of the African National Congress Youth League and was sent to Robben Island. My father spent his life savings on his defence.

I wanted to study law at and be a human rights lawyer. I would have been dead by now if I had! Anyway my father came back from the trial and said I’m sorry… I thought I would work and save money to go to university so I got a job at the Ford Motor Factory, assembling engines sent over from Dagenham in England – I always remember that.

I got involved in community work around Port Elizabeth. Then I met Athol Fugard [the legendary dramatist] in 1965 and joined The Serpent Players. When I met Athol it was the first time I had never met a white man and been introduced on a first-name basis. You were always John, but then it was Master or Mister so and so — but we were John and Athol. I was like OK this is a different white dude… It doesn’t mean I’m not going to kill him if the revolution comes – I will [laughs heartily]. So that’s how it began.

With Athol and your long-term writing partner Winston Ntshona [who died last year] you gave underground performances of your political plays to mixed audiences which got you in trouble…

It was illegal to have a mixed race audience. We gave performances in private. Then after winning a Tony award in New York, I came back to South Africa in 1975 to do a performance of Sizwe Banzi is Dead [the anti-apartheid play he wrote with Fugard and Ntshona]. We got a little bolder and decided to put the play on in a town hall and 320 white people turned up. We thought ‘uh-oh we’re in trouble here’. We had to make the decision to make it mild and about nothing or are we arrested for telling our truth? Winston and I communicated telepathically and hit it harder that night. As we took our curtain call that’s when it happened – the police had been waiting by the exits and moved in. The audience went wild – the white audience were like ‘what’s wrong with you, it’s a play!’ – but the police pulled out there guns.

Then you were arrested…

Yes. Twenty-three days later I was released because of massive demonstrations in London. When I was in solidary confinement on the 14th day a slip of paper appeared under the cell door. I looked at it for two hours before I touched it because I though it was some sort of entrapment. I had the time, dear – I was in solitary confinement! So I spent two hours being excited about what it might be. Slowly I unfolded it and it was an article in a local newspaper – it was ‘Actors in London demand that actors Winston and John Kani are released’. I tell you what made me weep in the corner of my eye – I saw Albert Finney, Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Janet Suzman and, wait for it, Robert Morley. I would never thought he would have an iota of political conscience – I’m happy for all the others but Robert Morley! I was like ‘oh my God’. And for the first time in 15 days I fell asleep that night, because I thought I know they can’t kill me now – the world knows they have me. I fell asleep with a smile. Later I found out there were demonstrations everywhere – New York and Paris – and so we were released.

But of course in 1985, after performing Sizwe in South Africa, the authorities did get you…

Yes that was something else in my life. I carry 11 stab wounds. I was left for dead – I literally heard them say ‘come on he’s dead’. [John also lost an eye during the beating.]

During the apartheid years did you envisage the fall of the regime?

Oh yes. Even as a child during primary education we used to sing songs. One thing that our mothers and fathers drummed into us was this is your country: ‘You are God’s child, like the stars, like the wind, even like the white people, and one day the land will be returned to the rightful owners. And your struggle is eternal until it is achieved — the oppressor can hold on as long as he likes but he will fall.’

We grew up with that incredible confidence and passion. We were told if you love your country you are a patriot, and if you are a patriot you must be prepared to die – as a combatant it is noble to die for your country.

As teenagers, aged around 18, all you wanted was to be was arrested so you could have that qualification [indicates badge of honour] during the struggle. The very best would be to be sent to Robben Island because that was the university of life and the struggle. And then you would speak to your grandchildren about ‘When I was on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela’.

Did your uncle get released from Robben Island?

He came out never spoke a word about those five years. Whenever I did an interview before 1994 he would say to me ‘be careful, those Boers are ruthless – they will break your horns’. I had this image of an ox having its horn broken at the root – that is the only clue I have of the torture he went through during his arrest.

And you did go on to meet Mandela?

Yes when he was released in 1990 I was chosen as a ‘cultural activist’ along with eight others to visit him — along with all the politicians and businessmen. When I walked in to meet him he said ‘Ah the native that caused all the trouble’ — and he called me that until he died. We called him Tata — my father.

Back to Kunene – what are you hoping to bring out with the play?

When I tell a story I’m always fascinated by the individual. I talk to one individual and I say how are you now? Has the country changed? Has your life changed? And if someone is still standing in front of a shack in the Township then they have a different story from the black people that have moved up and enjoyed economic benefits — and they also have a different story from white South Africans who don’t even know there’s a place called Soweto. It’s those stories that fascinated me and I wanted to look at our 25 years of democracy and take a critical look at it. So we see apartheid through the eyes of Jack, a white liberal and his nurse Lunga, who lived under the regime.

Finally, what do you think an audience will get from it?

All I do in my life is hold a mirror up to you, what you see is your problem, deal with it!

Kunene and the King is on at The Swan Theatre until 23rd April. See review in Thursday’s Stratford Herald. Book tickets at www.rsc.org.uk