Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

A Conversation with Dr. John Kani

This past week, Dr. John Kani, world-renowned actor, writer, activist, and director, most well-known for his work as King T’Chaka in Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” and “Black Panther” as well his Tony award-winning role in The Island (which he co-wrote), visited Carleton College for the week to give several talks and performances for the students. On Sunday, April 15, there was a showing of “Black Panther” followed by a Q&A session with Dr. Kani where students could ask questions about his work with Marvel as well as the impact working on “Black Panther” had on him. Then the next day, there was a reading of “The Island,” a play co-written by Kani which is set in apartheid South Africa where two prisoners, Winston and John, rehearse for a performance of “Antigone”. This reading of “The Island” was performed by Kani himself in his original role of John, with David Wiles, a theater professor, playing Winston.. Similar to the showing of “Black Panther,” the play was followed by a Q&A session. During this Q&A session Kani discussed how he intertwined activism and acting and why the arts are so important. Lastly, on Friday, April 19 Kani hosted a roundtable discussion talking about his entire career. In addition to these public events, Dr. Kani was also a guest speaker in numerous classes around campus. 

On Friday April 19, the Carletonian sat down with Dr. Kani to discuss his career and history of his activism. Since the 1960s, Dr. Kani has been involved in the theater world. He began his career in an acting troupe called the “The Serpent Players” in 1965. This group took on the role of performing many plays including Camus’ “The Just,” “Antigone” by Sophocles and  “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” by Brecht,. The group also produced several of their own productions, including “The Sell Out” (1971), “The Coat” (1965) and  “The Last Bus” (1966). Apart from shows directly with the Serpent Players, in the ‘70s, Dr. Kani began to co-write his own plays including “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” and “The Island,” which he co-wrote with authors Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard. These two plays began to receive international attention, with “The Island” and “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” both being performed outside of South Africa. Kani and Ntshona received a Tony Award for their performances in both “The Island” and “Sizwe Banzi is Dead,” something that has never happened before. Though positively received internationally , when Kani returned to South Africa, his performances were not met with the same praise from the government. 

We began our conversation with Dr. Kani by setting the scene of what South Africa was like while Kani was growing up. He described the many ways South Africa oppressed its Black citizens, including the education system, industry and even real estate. For the people of South Africa, it was impossible to escape the constant reminders of apartheid.

“You watch your family, your community being terrorized like a military junta state, police vans and army trucks always driving and watching, then you begin to hate. And when you hate, you are going to hate the enemy.” He went to say, “Now you are a young child growing up there, you can see immediately and then you can make a decision that ‘I’m going to try and make a change.’”

For Dr. Kani, his avenue to make a change was through the arts. What drew him  to the arts, he said, was “First it was my love for storytelling, I’m a sucker for ‘once upon a time’–there’s something it’s telling me, it wants me to listen, there’s something it’s teaching me and that was the basis for African theater.”

However, he also was drawn into the arts when he discovered that it could be used to spread the messages of change to South Africans. Kani emphasized that to him, it was impossible to separate art from what was going on in South Africa, and that, “You can no longer get away with the fact that art is art, art cannot mix with politics, but as a citizen, as an artist when you speak about what you feel, it’s a microcosm of what your society, your village feels.”

In the South African education system, the government had determined that things like literature were unnecessary for a Black child to learn. Kani explained that “Even at schools,  why would you introduce Shakespeare or literature to the Black child, how is it going to help him later in life under apartheid?” Dr. Kani proved this philosophy wrong when he began using Shakespeare and other plays to inspire change. “We found a strange platform: that if we did a play they did not really care [about] or want to come in, and sometimes they watched and didn’t understand the indigenous languages and they thought the natives were having fun, we kept that format of storytelling but this time the stories were in code.”

Dr. Kani is describing how he began to utilize acting and the arts to combat the apartheid system. “They” is in reference to the South African police who kept Black communities under strict surveillance. Dr. Kani and the other Serpent Players would meet in secret, finding ways to sneak in messages of resistance that could inspire strength in their community. An example of how Kani and the Serpent Players would interweave “code” throughout their plays was, in one of their performances, there was a song in the language Xhosa, one of the national languages of South Africa.

In this song, there is a line that in Xhosa means “We will be free.” However, in the English translation they sing “We are having a good time.” The striking difference between these two translations allowed for the actors to go undetected by the police. However the native people in the audience knew exactly what the actors were saying. Even though the police were unable to understand the true meaning of the plays, Kani noted that they often were still banned. However, this didn’t faze him. “I often looked at things that were going to annoy the South African government. In fact if I wrote a play and it wasn’t banned, I went back to rewrite!”

His play “The Island,” performed in the Weitz Theater on April 16, is another excellent example of how Kani utilized theater to spread a message of resistance . It is about two prisoners on an unnamed island which is implied to be Robben Island, a prison off the coast of South Africa where numerous anti-Apartheid activists were famously imprisoned, including Nelson Mandela. During their imprisonment the two men, Winston and John, are practicing for a performance of “Antigone,” which they intend to perform later that week to the rest of the prisoners and guards. Importantly, Winston has been sentenced to life on Robben Island while John has been sentenced to ten years. John’s sentence is incredibly important to the story because as Dr. Kani explained “it created hope.”

John’s hope in the play is accentuated through his drive to perform “Antigone,” a play about justice. Throughout the show, the themes of apartheid and freedom from an oppressive regime are interwoven into the text. John emphasizes to Winston that “Antigone” is about two sides: the accused and the state. The accused is Antigone, who has been put on trial for burying her “traitor” brother Polynisus and the state is King Creole, who is running the trial. The message of “The Island” was heard all around the world. After its run in Cape Town, it was performed in both England and the United States. Internationally, people outside of the community in South Africa picked up immediately on its message.

Dr. Kani’s work on “The Island” as both an actor and a writer aided in spreading the message of what was occurring in South Africa to the global community. To him “the birth of physical theater showed the pain and the suffering of Black people” and through his writing and acting he has successfully made an impact. However, Dr. Kani’s work as an activist did not come without risk,s and for an Black activists in 1970s apartheid South Africa, the risks could be the loss of your life. However, Kani said that “you get to a point where you say to yourself ‘I’m taking arms to liberate my people and the risks are obvious: we may win and I may die. And if I die then I will be in history books about those who paid the ultimate price for what people in the later times are enjoying — the fear of being arrested, the fear of dying — we took that out of the equation because that was paralyzing being active.” To Kani, while the risks were great, the reward of liberation was and is significantly greater. 

Dr. Kani has continued to work in the arts world spreading activism and knowledge to as many people as possible. In our conversation he emphasized that he is very intentional about the roles that he chooses to play. For example, the role of King T’Chaka in “Captain America: Civil War” and “Black Panther” was a way to spread parts of African culture to a greater audience. His work in the arts has continued to impact people across the world and it was an incredible honor to be able to sit down with him.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *