Kunene and the King at Fugard Theatre Cape Town

Last night’s production of Kunene and the King was masterful! Two seasoned actors presented powerful performances capturing the audience’s full attention. John Kani’s new play presents the deep pent-up emotions of South Africans before and after the end of apartheid 25 years ago. It gets to the heart of things with no holds barred.

Fugard Theatre – Cape Town Magazine

My first visit to South Africa was in 1987 – before the end of apartheid. Since then, I’ve returned often and noted many changes. In reflection, Kani’s play seems a racial and political catharsis. At the end, the sold-out house seemed almost stunned. Some had tears in their eyes in reaction to the honest emotions so vividly portrayed – anger, hatred, fear, compassion, hope….

John Kani and Antony Sher Kunene and the King – Ellie Kurtz

Background

Kunene and the King premiered during April in England at The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The performance last night was a co-production between The Fugard Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company. The play reunites “the powerhouse team of director Janice Honeyman, writer, actor, activist, playwright John Kani, and world-renowned classical actor Sir Antony Sher“.

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Kunene and the King “beautifully captures the complex divides of race, class, and politics in a remarkable, moving new play”. Michael Billington, The Guardian

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Janice Honeyman Director – Media Update

Plot

Kani’s play is a “fitting tribute to mark the anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections after apartheid”. In the play Kani and Sher play two elderly men “from contrasting walks of life thrust together to reflect on a quarter century of change”. In Kani’s words – “Their relationship examines the very foundation on which our democracy is built.”

Lungiswa Plaatjies Musician, Singer, Composer – Sarafina Magazine

John Kani is Lunga Kunene, “a headstrong African male nurse contracted to care for cantankerous white actor Jack Morris, Antony Sher”. Jack is coping with terminal liver cancer and determined to play King Lear before he dies. To pass time, Lunga helps Jack practice lines for his role in Shakespeare’s play. During their crass and edgy interactions, they mellow, get to know each other, and develop an unlikely friendship.

Kunene and the King – Royal Shakespeare Company

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Kunene only knows Julius Caesar from his school days, because “it’s about a failed conspiracy, and at the time one play was considered enough Shakespeare for a native child”.

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King Lear – Bookrepublic

As Kunene learns the plot, he shares his disappointment that King Lear failed to “consult ancestors” – something an African would do. Kunene compares the characteristics of King Lear’s three daughters Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia to South African Presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma. True to form, Jack snaps back reminding him that King Lear is an English play, not African.

Fugard Theatre – Jesse Kate Kramer Photography

Talented actors, directors, designers, and managers all contributed to the unforgettable production. Lungiswa Plaatjies‘ on-stage singing in isiXhosa is glorious.

Kunene and the King – facebook

Kani and Sher

John Kani and Anthony Sher share a love of Shakespeare. Like the characters they play, the have vastly different backgrounds. Kani grew up in the Eastern Cape while Sher, the child of an affluent Jewish family, is from Sea Point.

Accomplished Kani began acting in high school. He met fellow activist, actor, playwright, and director Athol Fugard in the 1960s. After touring, teaching, and performing in the US and Australia, Kani returned to South Africa in the 1970s. At that time during the Black Consciousness Movement, he experienced the brutal injustices of apartheid and had a rocky relationship with South African police.

Kunene and the King Antony Sher – rsc.org

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“Kunene and Jack need to shake their habit of treating the other as a specimen: one of ‘you people’, white or black. This isn’t always easy.” TheatreCat Libby Purves

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Sir Anthony Sher Actor – BBC

Kani has received recognition and awards for his work, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Cape Town and a South African Film and Television Lifetime Achievement Award. Today, he’s executive trustee of the Market Theatre Foundation, director of the Market Theatre Laboratory, and Chairman of the National Arts Council of South Africa.

Athol Fugard Playwright, Novelist, Actor, and Director – Richard Corman Photography

At 19, Antony Sher left South Africa and moved to London to begin an acting career. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982. Three years later he won the Laurence Olivier Best Actor award for his performance in the title role of Richard III. In 1997, Sher won a second Olivier for his portrayal of Stanley Spencer in Stanley.

Fugard Theatre Foyer – TravelGround.com

Sher became a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2000. He met his partner, Gregory Doran, in London. Doran is Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

John Kani Playwright, Activist, Actor – The South African / Image Zalebs

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“Kani’s writing remains deeply incisive, full of both anger and understanding…” Dave Fargnoli, The Stage

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Kunene and the King John Kani and Antony Sher – The New York Times

I’m privileged to have attended Kunene and the King – there’s much to learn from the play. It was a magnificent performance and memorable evening.

Crossroads Squatter Camp Cape Town South Africa

Crossroads Township was a large squatter camp (shanty town) in the Cape Flats area on the outskirts of Cape Town. Many people moved to camps like Crossroads to get closer to work opportunities, health care, and education services unavailable in poorer rural areas.

Settlements like Crossroads consisted of thousands of shacks made of wood, tin, cardboard, and other scrap material. Living conditions were impoverished and substandard with entire families living in one tiny makeshift structure.

Crossroads Children

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“Fighting and rioting at Crossroads was largely thought to be the result of the South African government’s political control methods and an example of the Apartheid policy of contra-mobilization.”

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In 1975, four years after it was established, the South African government classified Crossroads as an “emergency camp”. After the June 16, 1976 Soweto Youth Uprising, that classification made it immune to the demolition that occurred in similar shanty towns across South Africa.

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“In the South African context, contra-mobilisation was used to organise and support ‘moderate blacks’ to oppose revolutionary movements.”

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“By the mid 1980s Crossroad’s population was over 100,000 and highly visible in the world press and flight paths of Cape Town International Airport. Authorities attempted to move Crossroads residents further away from the city to a new township, Khayelitsha (new home in Isixhosa), but they refused. There was rioting among rival gangs and fighting in the streets.”

“In the South African context, contra-mobilisation was used to organise and support ‘moderate blacks‘ to oppose revolutionary movements. Of necessity, it was a covert strategy that made use of ‘surrogate’ forces, thus concealing the state as provider of logistical, political, and financial support. Hence, the state wasn’t seen to be involved in the conflict and violence between rival groups and resistance organisations” – para. 555, Vol 2, Chap 3, Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Report.

Crossroads Residents

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Rioting in May and June of 1986 resulted in burned houses and 60 deaths. Almost 60,000 residents of Crossroads became homeless.”

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Johnson Ngxobongwana was a local warlord with a strong political voice at Crossroads. He represented moderate Africans. Over the years Ngxobongwana built a popular following, including local thugs who wore white headbands for identification. South Africa’s Apartheid government and its security forces provided Ngxobongwana with “unofficial support”. It’s said that Ngxobongwana used those resources to eliminate his rivals and degrade women and youth groups.

On June 12th, President PW Botha declared a ‘State of Emergency‘ to halt the violence across South Africa by what he characterized as “revolutionaries supported by the African National Congress (ANC).”

Cape Flats

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Open fires used for cooking and candles for lighting resulted in burns, accidents, and frequent fires. This continues today.

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Steve Bloom Crossroads Aerial Photo

Although the South African media reported the violence as “black-on-black” the South African government’s involvement was clear. The government attributed the conflict to “historical rivalries and political differences between different groups and an increasing tendency to resolve differences by violent means”.

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“Settlements like Crossroads consisted of thousands of shacks made of wood, tin, cardboard, and other scrap material.”

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Crossroads Squatter Camp

Crossroads Squatter Camp

It’s interesting to note that today’s post-apartheid South Africa governed by the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s National Liberation Movement, has a growing number of squatter camps populated by Afrikaners – white South Africans.

White Squatter Camp

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“Despite impoverished blacks in the region far outnumbering whites, poverty is a human issue, not necessarily racial.”

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White Squatter Camp South Africa