The theatre of hate bows out

'For 400 years our poems and paintings have shown black people worn out with toil and struggle. Now we've got to paint pictures of beautiful, fat faces looking into the sunrise.' John Kani, executive director of Johannesburg's Market Theatre
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The Independent Culture
Today is Freedom Day in South Africa, the first anniversary of Nelson Mandela's new multiracial democracy. The arts have been defiantly integrated for years now, and the Market Theatre in Johannesburg has been an enclave of harmonious interracial collaboration since 1976. Ironically, since liberalisation the Market appears to have languished somewhat, finding it hard to attract audiences (even for Antony Sher's much vaunted Titus Andronicus) and one of its three stages is dark at the moment. People variously blame the current wave of crime, which leaves affluent whites too scared to go into the city at night, and the fact that there is so much drama in people's everyday lives now that theatre has lost its appeal. But is the problem also that the time has passed for the kind of political protest theatre with which the Market has made its eminently deserved reputation?

A handsome, imposing-looking, bear-like man with just a touch of grey around the muzzle, John Kani is an actor of international repute whose long association with the Market culminated last year in his appointment as the theatre's executive director. He is far from worried about the Market's future. "It was the government who told us we were making protest theatre," he says. "When we began, we just thought we were making theatre about our lives. If we'd lived in England or America we'd have told stories abut our lives and nobody would have called it protest theatre. But the reality of South Africa was the arrests and detentions and oppression - we could not escape that, so we decided to take it on.

"For 400 years our poems and paintings have shown black people with their eyes gouged out, their limbs falling off, worn out with toil and struggle. Now we've got to paint pictures of beautiful, fat faces looking east into the sunrise."

Kani is a shining example of the extraordinary spirit of reconciliation that prevails in South Africa. Raised in New Brighton, his chances of tertiary education disappeared when his older brother, an ANC activist, was sent to Robben Island, and their father's life savings were spent on paying lawyers.

An angry and frustrated John Kani joined a group of actors, the Serpent Players, who were based in Port Elizabeth and performing political and frequently banned work in the townships. When the group first invited Athol Fugard to work with them, Kani was suspicious of "this white man doing English kind of plays". He says, "I was very sceptical of the relationship, even jealous of the fact that the guys seemed to like and befriend him." At the time they were working on a production of Antigone, and soon Kani began to see the point of the exercise. "The way the group began to talk about loyalty and responsibility, right and wrong, legal and illegal, it began to sound similar to our political meetings in the townships."

Having recently joined the company, Kani was chief prompter, but three days before the first performance, Shark, the actor playing Creon's son, was arrested and sent to Robben Island. "I always say my first break was a dead man's break," he says. They continued to perform Antigone, and soon rumours began to emerge about Shark: so frustrated was he at not being able to perform that he was giving one man renditions of Antigone on Robben Island. "I don't know how he did it," Kani laughs. "I was the prompter, and I know he didn't know his lines. I was prompting him every other word." But the memory of the absent Shark was respected, and eventually resurfaced in The Island, the Athol Fugard play written in workshop with Kani and the actor Winston Ntshona, which tells of two inmates trying to mount a production of Antigone on the Island.

The play, first performed in 1973, went on to become an international hit, ending up on Broadway and winning Tony Awards for John and Winston. Now the Market is reviving it with its original cast, but is it a good idea to re-open old wounds rather than finding those new pictures of fat and happy faces? "It's time to honour those men and women who made their contributions to the great democracy," he replies. When Kani was introduced to Mandela in 1991, Mandela said, "I know you, and where's Winston? Are you boys still doing that play? I read about it when I was on Robben Island." Now Mandela will actually get the chance to see this classic of South African theatre.

But Kani is eager to emphasise the spirit of celebration, not castigation. "You know," he says with a chuckle, "those guys like Barney Simon (the artistic director of the Market) and Athol Fugard really messed up my revolution. I was the generation who hated the white man, despised him, wanted to shoot him. And it was OK when they were all bad. But then I had to start working out whether one of them was like Athol or Barney.

"At first, we were always waiting for the day when revenge would come, when we could stage huge Nuremberg-style trials for white men. But the more the struggle went on, the more we seemed to grow in humanity. The more the target became not to kill, but to make understand."

It is not a time for resting on laurels though, as Kani is painfully aware. He says that even as he was walking away from the voting station, a year ago today, he could see a list of tasks writing itself before his eyes. "We have to depoliticise our youth," says the old activist, who in the past has been the target of four death squads, the last of which left him with 11 stab wounds. "We have to teach our youth that the word 'government' means them, it's something to feel pride in, not something to attack. We've got to depoliticise crime: in the past stealing from white people was repossession, even killing, well, it was a situation of war. We've got to get back to talking about a culture of responsibility, of political tolerance. That you've got the right to be an ANC supporter, and not the enemy of Inkatha."

And the struggle continues? "Yes," Kani says, and smiles. "There is even more work to do now than before. And here is an artist filled with joy and anticipation."