A powerful depiction of struggle, freedom

Review: John Kani and Winston Ntshona are still superb in roles as South African prisoners in `The Island.'

November 09, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

John Kani and Winston Ntshona's portrayals of political prisoners in the South African drama The Island are the stuff of legend. It's not just that, in 1975, they became the only actors to share a Tony Award. In order to work as full-time actors in their native country, they once had to claim to be domestic servants. And they've been imprisoned themselves.

So there was always a large degree of verisimilitude in their performance of The Island, which wasn't seen for more than two decades after its debut in South Africa.

The actors brought The Island to Washington's Arena Stage the same year they won the Tony, and now they're back, this time at the Kennedy Center. Even without having seen the earlier performance, serious theatergoers cannot afford to miss the chance to see these two exceptional actors re-create their historic roles.

This two-man show had an unusual genesis. It is based on the true story of an actor who performed a loose version of Sophocles' Antigone while imprisoned on Robben Island, the jail for political dissidents where Nelson Mandela spent 23 years. Kani and Ntshona - who play characters with their own first names - devised The Island improvisationally with playwright Athol Fugard, who also directed the play.

The action begins with both men straining under the Sisyphean task of shifting large quantities of sand from one place to another. Amid sweat and groans, each man mimes loading sand into a wheelbarrow, then dumping it onto the pile the other is attempting to remove. The meaningless repetitive task recalls the spare dramas of Samuel Beckett.

Collapsing from exhaustion inside their cell (a raised platform furnished with two bedrolls and a bucket), the men nurse each other's wounds, and then Kani delivers a metaphorical "weather forecast" about white dominance replacing black dominance. It's the first indication of the imaginative strategies the cellmates have forged to survive.

The most moving of these strategies is a feigned phone call Kani makes to a friend back home. Holding a tin drinking cup to one ear, Kani - the larger and more garrulous of the two - conducts his one-sided conversation so convincingly, Ntshona hangs on every word, even trying to get in a word or two of his own. After Ntshona goes to sleep, Kani continues the phone call, but his voice takes on a plaintive tone as he asks about his wife, who hasn't written in six months.

The heart of the action, however, concerns the performance of Antigone the two are planning as part of a prison concert. The play-within-a-play - with Kani as King Creon and a reluctant Ntshona, decked out in straw wig and rag-stuffed falsies, as Antigone - is The Island's final scene. Its lesson in civil disobedience may be didactic, but there's undeniable resonance in the last line spoken by Ntshona's Antigone: "I go now to my living death, because I honored those things to which honor belongs."

Although Kani and Ntshona are now nearly three decades older than when they created The Island, if anything, the added years make their characters' plights more poignant, particularly in the case of Ntshona's character, who is serving a life sentence.

A decade after South Africa abolished apartheid, the political situation chronicled in The Island no longer exists. But the play's basic themes - the fight for civil rights in the face of oppression, and the crucial role of theater when freedom is threatened - couldn't be more relevant.

The Island

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, matinees 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Dec. 2

Admission: $20-$68

Call: 800-444-1324

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