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Playing It Safe

Adventurous Local Theater Company Ambitiously, If Tentatively, Tackles Heated 1970s South African Play

STRIKE A POSE: Sammie Real III (foreground) and Mawk collaborate on an identity.

By John Barry | Posted 11/29/2006

Sizwe Bansi is Dead

By Athol Fugard

Staged by Run of the Mill Theater at Theatre Project through Dec. 31

By invoking Jerzy Grotowski's "Poor Theatre" in the scripted prologue, the actors in Athol Fugard's Sizwe Bansi Is Dead tell us what to expect: stripped-down, essential theater that challenges boundaries between audience and actors. In 1972--when this play got its start in apartheid-era South Africa--people didn't have to look all that far for those boundaries. Apartheid was the law of the land, and theater was being used to strip away at it.

Obviously, things have changed a bit over 30 years. The audience is no longer engaged in the bureaucracy of identity passes, and the premise of the play--that there is no escape for the central character--has been watered down by time. Run of the Mill Theater is faced with the challenge of turning this play into a revival without necessarily letting it slide into a tribute.

Sizwe Bansi begins and ends in the studio of photographer Styles (Mawk). The subject of the photograph is a young, black South African, Sizwe (Sammie Real III), who is remaking his identity card after his old one, which he cannot read, has expired. Black South Africans during apartheid considered their identity cards an extension of themselves--without them, they would be subject to arrest and unlikely to find work. Sizwe, carelessly, has let his stamp expire. A friend, Buntu (also played by Mawk), tries to get him out of that fix, but without results. Finally, on a drunken late-night walk, they find a dead man on the sidewalk, with a valid identity card. Buntu persuades Sizwe to take the name of the dead man and give up his own. Hence, when Sizwe gets his photograph taken as the other man, he discards his own identity.

If in most mysteries a name-change is a means to an end, Fugard dwells on it with slow, calculated anger. His characters walk a tortuous route to decide that their identities no longer belong to themselves; once they're reconciled to that, Sizwe and Buntu start constructing strategies for survival and occasional small victories despite apartheid. But the fact that Sizwe must, in effect, kill himself to stay alive is at the heart of the play's anger.

Fugard tortuously maps out the logic of a change of ID. Styles offers an extended description of how, as an alternative to his demeaning assembly-line job, he decided to become a passport photographer. He has all the irritating affectations of photographers--he chats constantly and spends a while with each client asking them to say "cheese." But Styles' intense, determined optimism is unsettling.

Sizwe enters the studio a somewhat dazed man who is dressed in his Sunday best, posing for an ID photograph. Styles tries to make the clothes fit by getting Sizwe to adopt the strutting, somewhat complacent mien of the well-off. Eventually, the photo is taken, and when the bulb flashes, Sizwe Bansi is, officially, dead. He has changed identities.

Run of the Mill deserves credit for this extended focus on South African theater, which has remained a powerful political force since the apartheid regime fell. Over the next two months, the company offers an extended menu of staged readings from various South African playwrights, as well as one other full-length Fugard play.

With the Run of the Mill's stripped-down set and Fugard's Kafkaesque plot, a good deal rests on the actors' shoulders. Despite very believable portrayals of the four principal characters--realized solely by Real and Mawk--the company was a little cautious in its interpretation of Fugard. Mawk injects energy into his portrayal of the South African passport photographer, but as the play progresses, his character risks becoming somewhat flat.

In this adventurous production the actors appear to be searching for the emotional center of the piece. That's a struggle. There's obviously much that is troubling about the situation in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead--Fugard isn't offering dramatic meltdowns or melodrama. But the production is still distant from its subject matter, as if a stiff upper lip and relentless optimism are the only weapons these characters have in the face of a brutal South African bureaucracy.

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