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Actor and Playwright John Kani

Kani, a South African, is best known for his apartheid-era, politically charged collaborations with playwright Athol Fugard. His new play — and his first as a solo playwright is Nothing But the Truth. It's a post-apartheid family drama inspired by the death of his brother, a poet who was killed by the South African police in 1985. Nothing But the Truth is currently playing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York City. (This interview continues into the second half of the show).

42:50

Other segments from the episode on January 12, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 12, 2004: Interview with John Konay; Review of six DVD set, "The Stephen Sondheim Collection."

Transcript

DATE January 12, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: John Konay on his play "Nothing But The Truth" and his
involvement in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, John Kani, is one of South Africa's leading actors. During the
apartheid era, he was a member of the Serpent Players, which included the
white playwright Athol Fugard. This group violated the law simply by being
integrated. The group is most famous for its productions of two Fugard plays:
"Sizwe Bansi is Dead" and "The Island," about the prison Robben Island. Kani
won a 1975 Tony Award for his performance on Broadway in "Sizwe Bansi is
Dead." Today he directs the Market Theatre in Johannesburg.

Now he's starring in a production of a play he wrote about post-apartheid
South Africa called "Nothing But The Truth." It's being performed at Lincoln
Center until January 18th. The play looks at truth, lies and reconciliation
by focusing on two brothers. Kani plays Sipho, a librarian nearing
retirement, who is overshadowed by his younger brother Themba, a famous
anti-apartheid activist who had lived in exile in London. As the play opens,
Sipho is at the funeral of his younger brother, whose ashes have been returned
for burial in South Africa. Here's Kani performing an excerpt of the play.
Sipho, his character, is the assistant chief librarian, who had always wanted
to be promoted to chief.

(Soundbite of "Nothing But The Truth")

Mr. JOHN KANI: (As Sipho) So you win again, Themba. I'm still dull.
Nothing good is from me. I'm still at the library, and I'm not even the chief
librarian and will never be. If this country was free--I used to say to
myself, `If we had a black government, I would be the chief librarian.' I
watched the release of Nelson Mandela on television, and I said to myself, `My
time has come.' I was 57 years old when I voted for the first time in my life
in 1994. I made Nelson Mandela the first democratically elected president of
this country. I was 62 years old when I voted again in 1999. No one said to
me I was too old. How come I'm not too old to put them in power, and suddenly
I'm too old to be empowered?

GROSS: John Kani told me he created this character to celebrate the unknown
citizens who served in South Africa without reward.

Mr. KANI: Those who were in the marches but were not in front row, so you
never see their picture; those who were part of the protest, but they were
just one of the thousands; those who stood five hours on the queue in 1994 on
the 27th of April waiting to vote to give birth to South Africa's new
democracy, but you never hear about their names, you didn't see them in the
media. CNN and television didn't have their faces. So Sipho, the character
who stays, is an ordinary South African. Unfortunately, things don't turn out
his way because at the time that he's due for promotion, he's already 63 years
old.

The brother who left is Themba. He was a member of the movement within South
Africa, a political activist, a firebrand, an orator, loved by everybody and,
of course, as all human beings who are in leadership, has little flaws, like
everybody else; he's human. He did like the ladies a little, and that didn't
make him very popular in certain areas. And as the story unfolds, you will
then realize that even his own brother was not spared as a victim in his
younger brother's philanderings.

GROSS: Which brother do you play?

Mr. KANI: I play the older brother, Sipho.

GROSS: Why did you choose that brother for yourself?

Mr. KANI: I wrote the play from the point of the older brother because when
I started writing, I wanted to pay tribute to my brother, Xolile, who was a
poet. He was shot in 1985 at a funeral of a nine-year-old girl who was hit by
a teargas cannister. At that funeral--during the '80s, we used to use the
funerals as political rallies to mobilize the people to rise against
apartheid, to get the people not to give up hope, to continue the fight for
the liberation of South Africa. So funerals were quite important platforms to
be used by political activists.

So the police came--10,000 people attended this funeral. Within two minutes
hell broke loose. There was pandemonium. Shots were ringing, teargas all
over the place. In fact, at that funeral, something for the first time
happened: Shots rang also from the crowd, because ordinarily the police or
the soldiers will shoot and people will run away. This time fire was
returned, which marked the presence of the insurgents or liberation forces
within South Africa. So at the end of that, four bodies lay on the ground,
and only one of them had a name: Xolile Jonk and his brother. The others
were just unknown, three black youths.

So in 1996, when the Truth and Reconciliation hearings came to my town,
everybody wanted to know if we were going to go to these hearings to find out
who killed my brother and why. My mother said no.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. KANI: She said, `No, I have been watching the television and listening
to the radio. So many elderly people like me have been telling their stories,
I feel my story has been told. I don't think it's necessary for us to go
there, and it's not going to bring my son back.' My mother was a matriarch
and a very powerful woman, so there's nothing we could do. We all agreed,
`Mom's right.' But in me, there was no closure. In me, there was still
bitterness and anger. In me, there was still that wanting some kind of
revenge. I just didn't know what kind of revenge, but I did want something.
And writing the play was, for me, trying to deal with that, to bring closure.
But every time I tried to think about my brother, I always thought, `Oh, he
would have published a lot of poems now. Oh, he should be doing this now.
Oh, he could be married with four children and successful,' or, `Oh, he could
be overseas now. These are the things he should be doing.' I could never see
him in my mind resting.

So after writing the play in the year 2001, completed it early 2002, that
first performance was cathartic, that first performance was therapy. I mean,
every ounce of my body heaved and gave in. At the end of it, with the
audiences with the thunderous applause--I mean, there were tears in my eyes.
And I felt so good, so relieved, the weight taken off my shoulders. I went
home, visited his grave, and I stood there and just thanked him. And from
that day, I now remember my brother with fondness, with great pride of the
price he paid so that I could be not only a free citizen of South Africa but a
free citizen of the world.

GROSS: Were you at the funeral that he was shot at?

Mr. KANI: No, I wasn't because I had just come back from England. And I
called him that--I wanted to talk to him just...

GROSS: From living there or just from touring there?

Mr. KANI: From touring and performing. I would have been at the funeral if
I had been at home quite longer. So I'd just arrived. So he just told me
that he won't be long; they're just going to do a couple of his poems. And
there were a group, you know, of young poets--go to the funeral, and then
we'll talk later.

GROSS: And how did you find out the news?

Mr. KANI: Two young boys, age 8 and 11, walked in and said, `Excuse me, are
you Uncle John Kani?' I said, `Yes.' Said, `Do you know Xolile Kani?' I
said, `Yes.' Says, `He's been shot at the funeral on Mandee Street(ph).' So
I just got in the car, drove like a madman, got there. There were just a few
people wandering, and there was nothing, but you could see the chaos around
and still smell (sniffs) the teargas. And I asked and people said, `The
police took all the bodies and drove away with them in an ambulance.' So I
started to search for my brother because I still had the hope perhaps he was
still alive. I went to the local hospitals, clinics, police station, and
after seven hours, I finally got a tip from a young man. So I finally went to
the police mortuary, and I saw his body. He was shot three times in his
stomach with a shotgun. The district surgeon said that he was shot at a close
range of less than two or three meters; that's about six or nine feet away
from him.

GROSS: Did the police deny that they shot him?

Mr. KANI: The police said there were a lot of young people attacking them
with stones, with bullets, with everything, and they opened fire to defend
their lives. So they would not know whether he, in particular, was one of
those people they shot. Even the magistrate, or the judge, said, `The police
acted under extreme provocation,' and none of them could be individually or
even collectively held responsible for the death of my brother. So it's
almost appeared that no one shot him, but he's dead.

GROSS: Did you and your brother have strong disagreements about what type of
activism was the most potent anti-apartheid activism?

Mr. KANI: Like me and my eldest brother, who spent five years on Robben
Island, I saw him as a radical. He was more concerned and worried about me.
He felt that perhaps I wasn't as strong as he was. He also felt that I was a
little reckless because I would often shoot my mouth. And my association of
cause with people like Athol Fugard and the media and going abroad, he said,
`You've got to be more careful. You've got to be more careful. You know, the
white people will be protected, but you are unprotected.'

So my brother was more an Africanist. He was a member of the African Writers'
Association, which was an organization which wasn't allowing white writers to
be a member. So it was almost like for Africans only. He always queried
relationships with white people, saying that it was diluting the strength of
the struggle. It's creating an impression that there are a lot of white
people who are part of the struggle for the liberation of South Africa, which
was true, but this was a tease between me and him when we would sit down and
discuss what I would really want to do within politics. But it was a mild
joke between the two of us: `Come on, you got to come into the strength of
the struggle. You can't carry these whites with you.'

GROSS: Well, the fact that you worked with white and black actors and
playwrights is exactly what made that troupe, like, so unique. You know, the
most notable of the white people in the troupe was Athol Fugard, the
now-famous playwright.

Mr. KANI: Yes.

GROSS: So this was a very unique company in South Africa, a very important
one. So I imagine you felt very strongly about the importance of having this
group that was comprised of black and white people.

Mr. KANI: No, actually there was one member who was white.

GROSS: Oh, it was just Athol Fugard. Oh!

Mr. KANI: (Laughs) Yes. The rest of the group was black...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. KANI: ...or from New Brighton, my township. Only Athol was a member.
In fact, we went to Athol in 1961 to ask him to join the group because we had
heard about his work, we'd heard about his involvement with black
theater-makers in Johannesburg. Then he moved back to settle in his home,
which is in Port Elizabeth, and we went to speak to him, and he agreed to join
the group. It was called the Serpent Players. Ask me now why we were
serpents, I still don't know why we were--where we got that name. Well, we
couldn't have had an African name. But I joined the group later, and Athol
was already a member.

Athol was directing most of the works we were doing and also very integral and
crucial to the process of improvisation and workshopping, which we called
`experiment in playmaking.' We knew we had something to say. If we said it
our way, it would have been a political statement. He had the ability to
clothe this truth we wanted to say in a dramatic form, which was part of
entertainment and informing and educating our audience that evening.

GROSS: Did he, in a way, offer protection for the members of the group, too,
since it might have been more difficult to attack the group with a white
member in it than if the group was only comprised of black performers and
writers? The authorities would have been able to probably get away with it
easier.

Mr. KANI: Oh, no. Oh, on. He was in a more precarious position because he
was white. He was seen...

GROSS: He was in a more precarious position? Why?

Mr. KANI: Yeah, because he was seen as his government--as a traitor...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. KANI: ...a sellout to his own nation. He was seen as a Communist. And
what he was doing, working with us with such a political and a militant group
of blacks, was treason on his side. But he was more ostracized by the white
media, by the white community and by the white police force, which was making
sure that any element of resistance was eliminated and obliterated. So I used
to say to him, `At least I could go back to my community that is proud of what
I'm doing. You go back to your community that is looking at you as a
sellout.'

GROSS: My guest is South African playwright and actor John Kani. He's
currently performing at Lincoln Center in a production of his own play,
"Nothing But The Truth." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Kani. He's one of South
Africa's leading actors and playwrights. His play "Nothing But The Truth" is
now being performed at Lincoln Center. He wrote it, and he's starring in it.

What's the worst thing that happened to you, you know, that the government did
you to as a result of your theatrical work?

Mr. KANI: Well, in 1975 we won the Tony Awards for best actor, me and
Winston Ntshona. We went back to South Africa.

GROSS: This was "Sizwe Bansi is Dead"?

Mr. KANI: For "Sizwe Bansi is Dead" and "The Island." We went back to South
Africa. Nobody even knew we'd won that because there was nothing in the
media, except perhaps for one local newspaper that ran one paragraph saying,
`Two black actors win prestigious award in America,' end of it. So we started
again the tour of South Africa to play in the rural communities, which we felt
that they had not had the opportunity to see these plays, both "The Island"
and "Sizwe Bansi is Dead." We went to this small town in Batowin(ph), and we
performed at the town hall. And the audience was mixed. I mean, we were
breaking the law left, right and center. And during the performance, we
noticed that some strange-looking men were blocking the exits, and they were
standing. And at the end of the play, both Winston and I, as we were bowing
for the curtain call, were arrested and taken off the stage: Winston into
another car--driven another 150 miles east; I was into another car driving
another 200 miles north.

We met each other 23 days later. We were both detained in solitary
confinement. And we met again on the 15th day where he was leaving the
interrogation, where they brought him in to interrogate him, and I walked in
and I was also constantly being interrogated. I mean, the charges were
furthering the aims of Communism. Charges were inciting people to public
violence. Charges were furthering the aims of the African National Congress,
a banned organization, and promoting hatred among races. And they went on and
on and on, and none of them simply said for doing a play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KANI: And then at the...

GROSS: Wait. The real crimes here for the South African government was that
you were doing a play...

Mr. KANI: That is all.

GROSS: ...that criticized the government, and you also had a mixed audience,
and that was illegal, too.

Mr. KANI: Yeah, that was the crime.

GROSS: Right. Yeah.

Mr. KANI: That was illegal, yeah. But, finally, after 23--I think it was
about on the 18th day, I got a piece of paper under the door of my cell, and
it was wrote so tiny that it took me about five to 10 minutes gently to open
it without tearing it up. And then I saw it was a local newspaper saying,
`Kani and Ntshona still in detention. Massive demonstrations in New York,
London, Paris, Australia, Sydney.' Oh, my, my, I celebrated that evening. I
felt so good because I knew now, `Nothing can happen to me. The world knows
I'm here, so they can't kill me now.' So at least I could sleep. But...

GROSS: Do you think that they might have killed you had there not been
demonstrations?

Mr. KANI: Many, many people disappeared. Many people disappeared. You're
picked up and get detained, and when people inquire, the police would tell
them, `No, this person was released four days ago. We don't know where this
person is.' And that's part of the pain of the Truth and Reconciliation,
because it was those people who were claimed to have been released that the
security police were confessing of having killed them actually and buried them
or burned their bodies. We had known--a very good friend of mine, Mort
Krikana(ph), went to town just to go and buy a few things, and I never saw him
again, and I've never heard of him since. Even now, many--the Pepco three,
which is three wonderful activists in my own town, were told to go and meet a
friend of theirs at the airport, Sepor Hasha(ph) and Godolosi(ph) and the
others and Galela(ph), and they disappeared. And during the Truth and
Reconciliation, the police confessed having intercepted the car on the way to
the airport, took them to an old farm, interrogated them, beat them to death
and burnt their bodies. So it was a common fear that if you are detained, you
could disappear.

GROSS: From what you're saying about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
I would gather that you think their efforts were good efforts and that it was
important to have such a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Mr. KANI: Absolutely. Absolutely. I am 110 percent in support of the
Truth and Reconciliation and amnesty because...

GROSS: Yeah, even though it gives amnesty to the people who confess?

Mr. KANI: Even if it gives amnesty to the people who confess, even to those
who did not confess, we had to move forward. The biggest prize that we got
out of this struggle was the freedom of our people, the democracy and the
land; that South Africa belongs to all of us. That, for me, is the biggest
and noblest prize. But in the play, I examine that reconciliation in the
family context, because South Africa was not only between black and white; it
was also between white and white; it was also between black and black. So I
felt that we also needed reconciliation within family, between black and
black, and that's why "Nothing But The Truth" deals between two brothers, you
know, who are part of the struggle but played different roles.

GROSS: John Kani is starring in a production of his own play, "Nothing But
The Truth." Its run at Lincoln Center continues through Sunday. He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, the role of theater now in post-apartheid South Africa. We
continue our conversation with actor and playwright John Kani. And Lloyd
Schwartz reviews the DVD box set: "The Stephen Sondheim Collection."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with John Kani, a South
African actor and playwright. He became well known during the apartheid era
as a member of the Serpent Players, which violated the law by being
integrated. It was comprised of black actors and the white playwright Athol
Fugard. Now Kani directs the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. He's currently
in New York starring in a production of his play about post-apartheid South
Africa, "Nothing But The Truth." Its run at Lincoln Center continues through
Sunday.

How did you start acting? I imagine as a black South African, you weren't
exposed to a lot of theater when you were growing up.

Mr. KANI: Oh, no, there has been a lot of township theater from the 1834s,
stories about our lives, great kings, township life. There's been a lot of it
but not in the kind of theater houses that were only in the white suburbs or
white towns of South Africa.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KANI: And there was also the movie industry, which we call the cinema
and the boys club, where we saw all the great movies of the Indians being
chased by John Wayne and Roy Rogers. We went to the movies and walked out
very angry that the Indians lost all the time, irrespective of how many there
were. We saw the war movies and then saw the, you know, kung fu movies and
all those things. But at school there was a wonderful English teacher who was
an aspiring dramatist, who used us to dramatize our novels, short stories,
poetry. And we did a lot of Shakespeare because it was prescribed work for us
to do at school. And it was during those days that the interest in theater
grew stronger and stronger and stronger. And then when I left school trying
to find a career, I went to work at Ford Motor Company, which is an American
company, at the assembly plant assembling engines. And that's where the
experience is, in "Sizwe Bansi is Dead," of the visit of Mr. Henry Ford in
1965 to South Africa, who never saw us at all. And we were told that he was a
very important person, but he never saw us at all and all those things.

So when I heard about this group called the Serpent Players, I went to check
them out. And they were doing a play called "Antigone" by Sophocles. And I
walked in, and I saw this white person. I thought, `Whoops. This is
dangerous. We're going to be in trouble here.' I didn't know the group had a
white member. And I was very nervous about anytime the police would come in,
we'd be in trouble here. But what Athol was saying about this play,
"Antigone": `Was Antigone right to break the law? Was Antigone right to defy
the state? Was Antigone right to do what is right in her heart and in the
eyes of God, irrespective of the fact that the state had banned the burial of
her own brother?' That, for me, proved that the marriage between art and
politics in the South African context would last for a very long time.

GROSS: Now that apartheid is over, are you ever in the position of seeing
people in the theater or on the street or at dinners and receptions who you
know had worked against you during the apartheid years, either worked against
you in the theater or worked as police or in any other, you know, capacity,
where you knew that you had been one of their targets?

Mr. KANI: Yes, of course. There was a particular person in my town, in Port
Elizabeth, New Brighton, who made me and Winston Ntshona his personal
responsibility. He was a lieutenant warrant officer of the Special Branch.
Every time Winston and I returned from a trip abroad, he would come and visit
and annoy us with asking all these 900 silly questions: `Who did you meet?
Did you do this?' Always kept saying, `South Africa will never, never change.
This is a God-created situation.' They were the chosen people, not the Jews,
and that South Africa was their country, and we didn't have the brains to
become a free people or even to think we could govern. And all those things
were the terrible things he used to say. And I used to think that, `One day,
if this country is free, I'll find him, and I will make sure he also spends a
day or two in detention,' just to make him feel, you know, how he treated us.

In 1994, when we voted and we won and Mandela was inaugurated as the first
president, democratically elected, it was so strange. I really just wanted to
see this man and say, `Hello. How are you? By the way, we were right. You
were wrong.' That's all I wanted to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you ever get to do that?

Mr. KANI: No. He died because he was quite elderly. And I have no feeling,
really, I mean, towards him. I'm just laughing because he was stupid. You
can't turn the tide of freedom. You can't. The people who fight for freedom
will be free. They've got God on their side, they've got time on their side,
they've got the truth on their side. It doesn't matter how strong the enemy
is. It's only delaying the inevitable.

GROSS: Sometimes authoritarian governments, repressive governments, give this
kind of extra special power and mystique to the arts, to literature, to
theater, to music by suppressing it. And, you know, many writers and other
artists have noted that sometimes their art has a lot more power when they're
working under the repressive government. And then when the repression ends,
sometimes people don't care that much about the art, and that power that the
underground novel had or that the banned play had, you know, is kind of
dissipated. I'm wondering if you found something similar, that the power of
theater wasn't quite as powerful once there was freedom.

Mr. KANI: Yes, of course. As I always say, 1994 and democracy crash-landed
on us. We were very famous because we were in the era of protest theater and
protest art--writers, sculptors, poets, you know, musicians, artists, all of
us, you know, who spoke about the suffering of the human being, the inhumanity
of men to men. And in 1994, South Africa became a democracy. We used to
write plays demanding the release of Nelson Mandela; he was president. We
used to write plays attacking the state. Now it was our state--we used to
write plays attacking the vicious laws of the government; now it was our
government. Our society was changing right around us, and we were in the
midst of that change.

From 1994, '95, '96, there was this silence, this confusion, this state of
transition where we did not know what to write about, what to say. The
stories we wanted to tell were still straddling the past and were part of the
pain of the past. But we needed to understand that past in order to deal with
the present and may even venture to look at what the future holds for us.
Even our audiences who used to support that kind of work, especially in the
theater that I run, the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, our audiences dropped,
dropped to almost 10 percent, and every play we were putting on was not
drawing an audience. And we had to hold conferences and symposium and discuss
where the new South African work must go or must come from, where these voices
are. People just began--those that had resources and money, mostly white
producers, brought in new plays from abroad, new, excellent musicians from
Michael Jackson to Janet Jackson to Tom Jones to Whitney Houston to Pavarotti
to the "Lord of the Dance," to everything they can bring in that sort of
filled in the gap of uncertainty.

But by 1997, a new sort of voice began to emerge. We began to find our feet.
We began to identify what the stories we're now telling are about. And
"Nothing But The Truth" is one of those major breakthroughs into what South
African theater voice is now.

GROSS: My guest is South African playwright and actor John Kani. He directs
the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. He's now starring in a production of his
own play, "Nothing But The Truth," at Lincoln Center. It's about
post-apartheid South Africa. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is South African playwright and actor John Kani. He's
starring in a production of his own play, "Nothing But The Truth," at Lincoln
Center. It's about post-apartheid South Africa.

I'm wondering what your older brother, your brother who was a member of the
ANC and who spent five years in Robbens Island prison--what is he doing now?

Mr. KANI: Oh, he's at home. He's retired. He was a counselor in Port
Elizabeth, and now he's doing a small business for himself, and he is happy.
But in the strangest thing, we discuss a lot of things but never those five
years. (Laughs) I don't know why. Every time I tried to make him talk about
what happened, he says, `Ah, it was tough, but we made it.' He never goes into
detail in telling me what happened. So we have a fantastic relationship.
He's happy, and he's doing very well.

GROSS: It sounds like a lot of people who return from war and don't want to
talk about what happened there.

Mr. KANI: Yes, indeed. I mean, you want to know, like, on a day-to-day--I
want the five years times 365.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KANI: I want to know...

GROSS: You want it all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KANI: He never allows us to talk about it. He always changes the
subject, and I leave him alone now. I've known that--I've heard stories and
pieces there and there and would put them together in my mind. I know it was
tough for him. It was tough on Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and all the
great brothers and sisters, of course, who were kept in other prisons in South
Africa. But it's not a secret they're keeping, but they just feel that to
know that they suffered for what we are enjoying and we all went through the
struggle is good enough to give us the hope for tomorrow.

GROSS: Do you feel like you'll ever be at the point where you want to, you
know, do, like, a musical comedy?

Mr. KANI: I wanted to do "No, No, Nanette" all my life. I don't know
what it is about.

GROSS: Why "No, No, Nanette"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KANI: I don't know. I've always used that line "No, No, Nanette." I'd
love to be in a farce, a comedy, where I rush on stage, and the blood boils
and the audience is standing. And I'm tapping and I'm running out backstage
and saying, `I don't know what it is about, but I'm having a good time.' But I
have chosen, as a story teller, this kind of story, which is part of my
existence. I did do a movie four years ago called "Soweto Green," which
was a comedy, a great, great farce of a South African who lived in LA, studied
botany and zoology, comes back just after 1994, people welcoming that the
politician is back, and yet he's just a botanist. He wants to plant trees in
Soweto, to fight pollution, the air pollution. People are crazy, say, `No,
no. We want you to lead us to the freedom, to be part of the parliament.' He
says, `No. I studied in LA. I want to be a botanist or zoologist. I want to
fight the ozone layer.' So he was such a farce.

GROSS: Well...

Mr. KANI: And that was an incredible performance. It was a hit in South
Africa. It ran for a long time.

GROSS: I thought of "Sizwe Bansi is Dead" as being comedic because it was
about, in part, the absurdity of apartheid.

Mr. KANI: Exactly. I mean, the most important ingredient in our work during
the years of apartheid was humor. We knew that without humor, we'll call our
people to a political meeting. With humor, we're calling them to witness and
be part of an event, a journey, `And we're going to have a good time tonight,
but we're going to learn and hear about things that are important.' Humor is
therapy. I come from a long line of story tellers. My grandfather had three
wives and could not spell polygamy. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KANI: ...I used to go to each grandmother, and the stories would make
us laugh. But at the end of the stories, we learned a very good lesson about
life.

GROSS: You had been, and I'm not sure if you still are, a curator or chair of
the Apartheid Museum.

Mr. KANI: Yes, I am the chair of the Apartheid Museum and part of the founder
of the group of people who came together with a concept of creating a
monument, some memory, where the younger generation may forget. It's now the
second most important place to visit in South Africa, after Robbens Island--is
the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, which is an experiential journey which
begins in 1948 with the rise of white nationalism and ends at the inauguration
of Thabo Mbeki and still has little indications of where the country is going
today.

GROSS: Is there any part of you that would like to do a Hollywood movie or
two?

Mr. KANI: Yes, I do when I get the opportunity. About two or three years
ago I did "The Ghost and the Darkness" with Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.
And I did another one called "The Final Solution," which is a South African
movie. And there are movies in the pipeline that I'm thinking about and
people are talking about. But I'd love to--my agent being the William Morris
Agency, very good friend of mine, Sam Wally(ph), always says, `Do you think I
should get your Hollywood big movie?' I said, `Yes, so that I could make the
money and then be able to have time to write the plays.'

GROSS: Now that apartheid has been over for about a decade and you can
theoretically live anyplace you want to in South Africa, what kind of
neighborhood are you living in?

Mr. KANI: The economics are still prohibitive. You have about, really, 38
to 40 million black people who lived in sub-economic conditions. Not all of
them are now able, with intent, to make enough money to move uptown or move to
the east side or move to the suburbs where houses are still and prices
themselves are beyond their ability and capability, where we, who at least can
afford, are living in an ordinary suburb, which is in town closer to my work
and closer to the schools, where the kids are. These are the kinds of excuses
of `moving up' we give ourselves (laughs) because we now have money to buy a
house in the so-called former white areas. We say, `It's closer to the
school. It's closer to my work. It's closer and got wonderful facilities
around it.' Shut up and say, `I have money to buy a better house,' and that's
it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you almost feel like you have to apologize for it.

Mr. KANI: You do because you leave your own community, and you know that the
living conditions where you are going are much, much, much better than where
you were. And you don't want to lose contact with where you came from nor
from your people. But you have to accept the upward mobility. It's part of
the economy, the economics of the country, the way we live. But you always
feel like you need to explain yourself.

GROSS: Do you have any children?

Mr. KANI: Yes, I have eight children.

GROSS: Are any of them under 10, or have any of them grown up only in the
post-apartheid era?

Mr. KANI: The last two. Anati(ph) was born in 1991. Akeum(ph) was born in
1994.

GROSS: Is it amazing to you that they will have never known that system?

Mr. KANI: I can tell you now the others that were born in the '80s, who are
now at universities, are questioning why we allowed it to happen for so long.
They're almost like saying, `Come on, Dad, you mean you couldn't do that?
Why? Why didn't you just tell them to get off? You're going to do'--they
don't understand.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. KANI: And the younger ones, who have been with me, with their mother,
Jesnub(ph), they don't know anything about it. They're just looking at you as
if it's once upon a time. When I'm trying to tell them, they say, `Here we go
again. He's going to tell us that they never used to eat here, they never
used to do that, they never used to go there, they never used to be allowed
there. Please, Dad, can we get on with it? We're here now.' So you think
places like the Apartheid Museum and, of course, the traditional
story-telling, which is so African, still continues, though it's not as strong
as it was, where parents hand over the history orally to the younger ones. We
still do that. Whether they're listening or not, we tell them what happened.

GROSS: (Laughs) John Kani, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. KANI: Thank you.

GROSS: John Kani directs the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. He's now
starring in a production of his own play, "Nothing But The Truth." Its run at
Lincoln Center continues through Sunday.

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews the new DVD box set "The Stephen Sondheim
Collection." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Stephen Sondheim's new six DVD set, "The Stephen Sondheim
Collection"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Stephen Sondheim's latest musical "Bounce" didn't survive its out-of-town
tryout period and never made it to Broadway. But we can read about Sondheim
in the new book about the creation of his show "Follies," and we can watch
some choice Sondheim at home on a new six DVD set of fully staged and concert
performances. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz is a great fan of
Sondheim's and has this review.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:

In one of the best songs ever written, Rodgers & Hart's "I Wish I Were In Love
Again," love is defined as `the furtive sigh, the blackened eye, the words
"I'll love you till the day I die," the self-deception that believes the lie.'
Probably the truest heir to this honest and unsentimental view of human
relationships in popular music is Stephen Sondheim. Often his characters are
too self-absorbed to be aware of what would please their partners. At one
extreme, there's "Sweeney Todd," the title character of Sondheim's grim near
opera about the demon barber of Fleet Street. He's so bent on revenge that
killing becomes more important than the affection of Mrs. Lovett, his partner
in crime. She's the one who chops up the bodies of Sweeney's victims and
turns them into tasty meat pies.

In "Sunday in the Park with George," Sondheim's Pulitzer-Prize winning musical
about the great French pointillist George Seurat, it's an obsession with art
that threatens the artist's capacity for human contact. Yet in "Passion," an
infirm, older woman's obsession with a handsome young soldier, finally, at the
cost of her life, rescues him from his own selfishness.

`It takes two,' the baker and his wife realize, in Sondheim's melange of dark
fairy tales, "Into The Woods."

(Soundbite of "Into The Woods")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) You've changed. You're daring. You're
different in the woods, more sure, more sharing. You're getting us through
the woods. If you could see you're not the man who started and much more
open-hearted than I knew you to be.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) It takes two. I thought one was enough...

SCHWARTZ: These shows, along with an all-star concert version of "Follies,"
are part of an exciting set of six DVDs devoted to Sondheim. And there's a
terrific new book about the complexities of putting on a big Broadway musical,
Ted Chapin's "Everything Was Possible," which is the story of the creation of
"Follies," one of the most ambitious musicals ever mounted. Chapin is now the
director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Foundation, but 30 years ago he was an
undergraduate at Connecticut College doing an independent research project on
musical production by serving as a gopher for Harold Prince and the "Follies"
company during its often painful tryout period.

Chapin took careful notes, and they make a compelling story. One of his most
fascinating revelations is that in the course of getting the show together,
its creators--Sondheim, Prince, co-director Michael Bennett--and all the
designers were actually in a process of discovering what their show was about.
It started out as a murder mystery that takes place at a reunion of former
showgirls. But "Follies" turned into one of theater's deepest explorations of
the way we live in the past and, to my mind, even more important, about the
way musical comedy itself is not just an escape but also a mirror of life, a
distillation. "Follies" ends with the main characters expressing their
real-life dilemmas as if they were in a series of lavish production numbers.

The song "I've Got The `God, Why Don't You Love Me? Oh, You Do? I'll See You
Later' Blues" could have been the story of my own relationship with the person
I took to see "Follies" in its Boston tryout, a period Chapin writes about
with particular eloquence. Here's Mandy Patinkin on the "Follies in Concert"
DVD.

(Soundbite of "The Follies: In Concert")

Mr. MANDY PATINKIN: (Singing) I've got those, `God, why don't you love me?
Oh, you do? I'll see you later' blues; that `Long as you ignore me, you're
the only thing that matters' feeling; that `If I'm good enough for you, you're
not good enough, and thank you for the present, but what's wrong with this
stuff? And `Don't come any closer 'cause you know how much I love ya'
feelings; those `Tell me that you love me. Oh, you did. I gotta run now'
blues.

SCHWARTZ: The six DVDs are all good, the best of them being "Passion" with a
magnificent performance by Donna Murphy; "Into The Woods" with Bernadette
Peters and the rest of the original Broadway cast and "Follies in Concert,"
which is worth the price of the whole set just for Barbara Cook's
heartbreaking rendition of Sondheim's greatest torch song, "Losing My Mind."

(Soundbite of "Losing My Mind")

Ms. BARBARA COOK: (Singing) The sun comes up, I think about you; the coffee
cup, I think about you. I want you so, it's like I'm losing my mind. The
morning ends, I think about you. I talk to friends, I think about you. And
do they know it's like I'm losing my mind? All afternoon doing every little
chore, the thought of you stays bright. Sometimes I stand in the middle of
the floor, not going left, not going right. I dim the lights and...

SCHWARTZ: The paradox of Sondheim is that he's most original, most himself
and most true to life when he's using and transforming familiar musical
styles. Some people regard his view of life and love as cynical. Some people
call him a `disillusioned romantic.' For me, especially when his songs are in
quotation marks, he's musical theater's greatest and perhaps, at the moment,
its only realist.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor at the Boston Phoenix.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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