This review was originally written for The Public Reviews.
At the time this work was first performed in 1972, apartheid in South Africa was in full swing. Restrictions on and discrimination against black people and the bureaucracy involved was extensive, exemplified by the pass book used to regulate their movement. This play charmingly weaves an overview of these issues through the stories of Styles, an enthusiastic photographic studio owner and his meeting of Sizwe Banzi, who came to have his photograph taken. The illiterate Sizwe Banzi traveled from King William’s Town to Port Elizabeth for work but has to be sent back to where he came from. Sizwe is staying with Buntu and after an incident on a night out Buntu devised a plan so Sizwe can stay and find a job in Port Elizabeth.
Produced by the Eclipse Theatre Company and Young Vic, the ramshackle set of a cardboard shanty town brings an instant recognition of location. Originally a piece of devised work, the plot may not be the strongest. The focus of the the play is in the performances in recreating a sense of improvisation. With Tonderai Munyevu as Styles and Buntu and Sibusiso Mamba as Sizwe Banzi, the exaggerated style of their portrayals brings out the inherent optimism and their matter of fact view of the issues that they face. Everything is a part of life without showing judgement.
The wordiness of the first half is handled well by the director Matthew Xia. Munyevu as Styles is a cheerful and larger than life showman, engaging with the audience with great energy. His mimicking of members of a family having their photograph taken magically brings every one of them to life in a flash of smile. Buntu is more serious and thoughtful and a less showy part for Munyevu but is played equally well. Sibusiso Mamba is the embodiment of a beautiful naivety and carries a sense of bewilderment towards the world as Sizwe Banzi. But his instinctive guardedness makes him believable rather than becoming a caricature.
This play may have lost its initial impact as a piece of political theatre as South Africa is a different place now. But as a form of historical documentation in the guise of a superbly acted play, it is as powerful as it has ever been.