Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A lesson in micro history from a living legend

Last night I met a genuine living legend. I met John Kani. You may not have heard of him, but to me, meeting him was second only to meeting Nelson Mandela.

Let me just say that I don't do starstruck. I have rubbed shoulders with some pretty famous people in my life. Heck, I have even had a brief and inconsequential brush with celebrity myself, and I know for a fact that famous people use loo paper like for the same purpose as everyone else. I am not impressed by overpaid footballers or platinum disk singers or oscar winning actors or even royalty. I am impressed by people who make a difference.

John Kani is such a man.

Last night my husband took me to see Sizwe Bansi is Dead which Kani co-wrote with his fellow cast member Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard. Courtesy of the University of Cape Town alumni association, we got to attend a reception after the show with John Kani.

Hang on... Kani is an actor/playwright, so why am I impressed by him if I'm not the starstruck type? To quote from an article written by the South African journalist and activist Donald Woods:

"One day, if a historic assessment is made of the most effective opponents of the apartheid system in South Africa, two remarkable actors will be well to the forefront of the heroes of that era. John Kani and Winston Ntshona, through their art and passion as well as the great courage it took to do what they did in that time, broke new ground politically as well as artistically in defiance of the most vicious of all the apartheid regime's Security Police - those of the Eastern Cape."
Ntshona and Kani are more than institutions of South African theatre, and they have been performing this piece together since 1972 - interspersed with other work, of course. This is its last run. Not having seen the piece before I could not pass up this opportunity.

It was a history lesson. In fact, it was a history lesson of my own era.

If history tells the story of the victor, art tells the story of everyman. Kani, Fugard and Ntshona are all native to the part of South Africa where I lived from 1973 to 1987. This play tells the story of black people in the Eastern Cape at around that time - the era of the pass laws (see the Sharpeville massacre). It was a life ordinary white people never got to see or hear about. The personae of the story are not notable characters, not leaders of the struggle. They are just ordinary men trying to provide for their families within a system that seemed designed to make this impossible. Of course, there was plenty of wry humour - especially when the benefit of hindsight illustrated to an increasingly enlightened public how ridiculous many of the rules and processes were. It broke my heart - all the more because I realised that these two great men had been subjected to the indignities portrayed on stage.

When John Kani arrived at the reception, I walked up to this complete stranger and tearfully hugged him. I couldn't have explained why, but fortunately, I didn't need to. He hugged me right back and kissed me on the head. Not one of those pretentious theatrical air kisses, but a genuine gesture of affection for a woman caught in the clutches of emotions she couldn't explain. His response gave me a sense of peace that just sounds trite when I try to explain it, so I won't. I suspect he has been hugged by many white South Africans of my vintage over the years, and has dispensed that peace many times over. Someone took our picture shortly afterwards and has promised to email it to me. When it comes, I will proudly add it to this post, even though I know it will not be flattering to me - my eyes were swollen from weeping and my make-up was long gone (and I'm not a pretty sight without it these days!) [Edit: as promised - the picture]

In my teens I was a very minor political activist and was ejected from more than one place for my views on equality. Increasingly, however, I realise that I was a romantic idealist who knew nothing of the reality of daily life that faced the people whose cause I thought I was championing. Adulthood and the passage of time have brought comprehension. Last night gave it perspective. This is a blog about learning. Last night I learnt a lot!

On the train journey home after the reception, I was exhausted and kept dozing off, rousing myself occasionally to turn to my husband and say contentedly, "I met John Kani." To which my understanding husband replied squeezing my hand, "You did. You even hugged him, and he hugged you right back and kissed you."

Now if only someone from the Alumni association would make it possible for me to meet Madiba (Nelson Mandela)... ;-)


Harold Jarche said...

This is a very touching story. Thanks for sharing it.

As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Rob Wall said...

As I said on Explode, thank you for sharing this story with us. This was obviously a profoundly important moment in your life. I keep trying to add more to the comment, but it keeps ending up sounding trite and contrived, except to say that these sorts of transcendent moments serve as good reminders to us (or maybe just me) of what we hope to do with our lives. As we get older, we need these occasional reminders.

Again, thanks for sharing this moment with us.

Anonymous said...

Harold: what a wonderful quote, and how true. Once, when I was up on my soapbox about one of my many "causes", someone once asked me how I expected to make a difference, "You're only one person," she pointed out. I had one of those rare moments when you think of the right thing to say right then rather than after you've walked away. I said, "Name someone who isn't..." Margaret Mead says it better, though.

Rob: thanks for the encouragement. I know what you mean. There was no way I could explain the whole emotive aspect of the encounter without diminishing it. Sometimes "deep calls to deep" and there's nothing more to be said.

Anonymous said...

Nice story. Sorry if I missed this from an earlier entry, but what was your "brief brush with celebrity"?

Anonymous said...

I'm almost embarrassed to say, Michael - it really was very minor and very inconsequential.

I started my career as a performer, so I've done some stage shows, sung a few gigs, worked as a movie extra and (my closest brush) presented an Afrikaans music programme on TV... very badly!

I chucked it all up as a bad job in 1987, though. And although I still get to do a bit of singing with the church band, my performing days are pretty much over.

I don't really miss it, but there are two roles I would love to play: Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, and Anna Leonowens in The King and I. I'm about the right age, too. Pity there's no space in my life ;-)