Writing about Nelson Mandel last week reminded me that I had yet to mention one of the best theatrical experiences of my life. And yes, there is a correlation (I promise). I think this event was so powerful because it blended theatrical performance with real life, with history, in a way that causes this awareness of artistic eternity. There’s a reason that words spoken on a stage thousands of years ago are still relevant. Why we still weep when Juliet wakes up. It is beyond us and inside us all at once.
The show that rocked my world was Sizwe Banzi is Dead. I saw it at BAM in April of 2008. The play developed through workshops with its two performers Winston Ntshona and John Kani along with the playwright Athol Fugard in the early 1970s. When it began performances in South Africa its gripping indictment of apartheid led to jail time for the actors when they refused to stop performing it.
Joe Melillo of BAM said it much more eloquently than I would: “The very existence of this play is a remarkable testament of the defiance and daring commitment of these artists in the face of grotesque oppression.” What really brought me to tears (beyond those evoked by the strength of the play itself) is the fact that the two originating actors were performing the show for the last time. They were “retiring” it after the run. Thirty six years after being thrown in jail for saying these exact words, I sat feet away from them.
I suppose that it’s rare to have a moment in your life feel weighted and meaningful and special WHILE it is happening. Normally you look back on something and see how important it was, but at the time it was a day like any other. Well not this time. To watch these men perform this play, words fail me. They were young men when it began in 1972, speaking out against something so evil that it doesn’t exist anymore. They survived, traveling from jail to Broadway. Now in their 60s, they still crackle and sparkle with vibrancy and passion. They never forgot what the play meant, they never lost the power of the work. They bellowed and raged, wept and rejoiced. And so did I. I was there.
I think that’s the amazing thing about the theatre (and movies and music and painting…. the list goes on and on). No one can take it away from you. And as I sit and write this I can still hear their voices. I get chills and my eyes well up with tears. It will never not mean something. It will remain visceral and immediate. And I am grateful and humbled to have been there. It’s that story that I will tell. Of being taken to a time and place I will luckily never know, of being shown how 36 years and a million tellings cannot dampen a story’s efficacy.
Then the final words were spoken, the lights fell and all was silent. Amidst tears and applause, Winston and John took the stage. They simply stood, embraced by a mass of people unified and connected. Race and gender and background had dissolved. We were taken to a dark and haunted place and then brought back home safe and sound but forever changed. This is why I can imagine no other life. Because you hope against hope to be a part of something that means more than you. Something that mends the cracks that the world can create. Something that will live on.
I can never thank them enough. For being brave and fierce… and staying so damn healthy. I am eternally grateful.
Thanks for reading,
Things I’m digging this week: my Kansas Jayhawks basketball team (rock chalk!), Rebecca Gilman, Jello Mousse
Dream Role: Anastasia/Annain Marcelle Maurette’s play (but science recently proved she didn’t survive, I always wanted it to be true…)