Nothing but a stage icon’s truth

Carl Collison

“Sometimes it frustrates me that this stardom s**t has made me kind of inaccessible to people,” says Dr John Kani, matter-of-factly.

Keen to make himself more “accessible” the Tony Award-winning icon of South African theatre, who stars in the Hollywood production, Captain America: Civil War, has agreed to stage his production, Nothing but the Truth, as part of Artscape Theatre’s staging of Grade 11 and Grade 12 setworks.

“I missed the opening night (of Captain America: Civil War) to be here,” he says. “And I tell you, my wife is not happy with me. She missed her opportunity to walk down the red carpet with Robert Downey Jr.”

While his wife may have lost out, pupils and teachers across the Western Cape stand to gain because Dr Kani will also be engaging with pupils in a series of post-performance question-and-answer sessions.

Given him bemoaning his lack of accessibility, these sessions must, for Dr Kani, certainly come as a welcome addition to the production’s run.

“Yes,” he says, adding, “all of our lives we’ve studied dead authors. Very rarely do young people get to see a play and there is the author, alive.”

Set in the Eastern Cape Town of New Brighton, and with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a backdrop, the play tells the story of a man’s journey of coming to terms with the past by letting go of the resentment and hatred he harbours.

“There is a huge gap between today’s generation and my generation,” he says.

“Young people today don’t seem to know how we, in South Africa, got here. This play aims to bridge that divide. So the pupils are not going to ask what I’ve written, but why I wrote it.”

So, I ask, why did he write it?

“I wrote the play because I had to deal with an issue within me,” he says. “This issue in me of ‘I don’t know what you mean by forgiveness’; the issue of ‘I don’t believe saying I’m sorry is enough’. But,” he laughs, with an almost self-deprecating candour, “I don’t have an answer to what more I want beyond ‘I’m sorry’. That’s why I wrote Nothing but the Truth: to confront my own bitterness; my own anger – even my frustration with this new-found democracy.”

Has penning the multi award-winning play led to some answers; some release from this anger and frustration?

“You know, he says, after a slight contemplative pause, “I performed the play for students here in Cape Town in 2002 at the Baxter Theatre. There were close on 600 students of all races there. And, I tell you, seeing their tears, their joy and the ovations made me feel a sense of calm in my heart. I realised then that it was time to let go; to free me; to forgive me. It was time to embrace this new generation; these kids who were looking into my eyes with hope.

“So, yes, this play was a cathartic experience for me. I’m now comfortable with South Africa. I’m comfortable with everything.”

As part of the theatre’s “Kani Season”, Dr Kani’s play Missing (in which he stars) will also be staged. With his decades of experience and international renown, it seems strange that the Kani Season marks this year’s Fleur Du Cap Lifetime Achievement Award winner’s debut at the theatre.

Any reason for that, I ask?

“This was an apartheid institution that excluded me all my life. I remember coming to the city in 1969 and just walking around and it was amazing: the buildings; the energy. Then someone said to me, ‘That’s the Nico Malan Theatre. It’s for whites only.’ This place was the pride of the minority tribe.”

Those years of refusing to grace the stages of what were “the pride of the minority tribe” (even though democratic rule had been achieved), he puts down to not being able to forget decades-long oppression.

“My memory is my enemy,” he says, adding: “Yes, there was Mandela; yes, there was this new era with its explosion of talent. But when I sleep; when I close my eyes at night, I dream pre-1990.

“It’s a strange thing, isn’t it? I have a beautiful home in Joburg, but when I dream I don’t dream of lovely experiences I had in that house or anywhere else. I still dream I’m in my mother’s house in New Brighton.”

As to what brought about his change in perception about the theatre to which he was invited for his eponymous season, he says, the trademark frankness in tow: “I’m tired of continuing my own war against myself; this war against apartheid structures.

“Also,” he adds, “coming here, I met young people talking excitedly about their vision; the vision of this place. I met a lot of people here and found this sense of a yearning to be seen differently; a yearning to redress, but at the same time acknowledge diversity.

“Coming here, to this theatre,” he smiles, “felt like coming home.”

* Nothing but the Truth runs at the Artscape Theatre from Thursday May 5 to Saturday May 14 (except Sundays), at 10.30am and 4pm, except Saturdays, when performances will only take place at 10.30am. Tickets cost R40. To book call Artscape Dial-a-Seat at 021 421 7695.

* Missing will be staged from Monday May 9 to Saturday May 14. Performances start at 7.30pm. Tickets cost from R40 to R80 and can be booked through Computicket or by calling Artscape Dial-a-Seat at 021 421 7695. Vsit