John Kani: Activist, humanitarian, actor, and playwright

Before he’d even said a word, visiting dramatist John Kani received a standing ovation from the nearly packed Philip Chosky Theater in Purnell. Lecturing on the afternoon of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Kani was perhaps the physical embodiment of the phrase “his reputation precedes him.” And there it was: As Kani emerged onto the stage and took his first few steps towards the podium, there was almost too much to clap for.

A Tony Award-winning actor and playwright, a prominent figure in the struggle against apartheid, a survivor of an attempted assassination, a spokesperson in his country for AIDS awareness and prevention, a captivating orator, a father, and a model of ubuntu — the South African philosophy of togetherness and peace — Kani brought with him an entourage of his accomplishments, collectively packaged in the form of a humble, 62-year-old man dressed in tennis shoes and a windbreaker.

When the applause finally began to subside, notebook pages fluttered, pencils stood poised, and a hundred pairs of eyes belonging to students and faculty members alike stared intently, like teams of spotlights, ablaze with readiness and utter fascination.

“I would have taken John Kani whenever he was prepared to come,” said Elizabeth Bradley, head of the School of Drama. Kani was a guest to the university all of last week: lecturing, dropping in on classes, and even making stops in some of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods. Because his visit fell on the first week of the semester (sandwiched between two back-to-back commitments to film and two to theater), it was slightly more difficult to coordinate his activities, especially given the holiday.

But Bradley remains confident that Kani’s stay in Pittsburgh was a success. “He’s really, I think, affected the lives of everybody he’s touched here,” she said, adding that she’s received positive feedback from students in and out of the School of Drama, in addition to members of the larger Pittsburgh community, including a local Baptist congregation. “The personal life story apart from his contribution as an artist is pretty extraordinary,” Bradley said. “We don’t have too many legitimate heroes.”

For Kani, it’s all in a day’s work. “My job is to entertain, inform, and educate,” he said. Writing and acting in plays, Kani explained, is similar to the creation of a painting; he manufactures the work of art, and it is up to the audience to pick out the meaning.

“I believe in the power of the word and I believe in the power of the art,” Kani continued. As presented to the public, he added, the domains of theater and politics are often hopelessly intertwined. Kani criticized leaders for “winning” support based on presentation and rhetoric, whereas works of art rely on the depth behind every show-stopping monologue and witty retort.

Kani considers it his duty to push the issues once again to the forefront of the public consciousness. But people have to be engaged; as a writer, he cannot simply teach his audience members a lesson, Kani explained. Instead, he has to tell them a story.

It was Antigone, an ancient Greek play penned by Sophocles, that first ignited Kani’s interest in the stage. In the story, Oedipus’s sons Eteocles and Polynices slay one another in a fight for control of the kingdom of Thebes. After that, King Creon rules that Polynices, who had been in exile prior to the fight, is unworthy of a burial. But Polynices’ sister Antigone defies the order, and as a result is sentenced to die alone while imprisoned in a cave.

At its close, Antigone poses a difficult question: Do unjust laws deserve to be broken? To Kani, Antigone’s struggle mirrored life under apartheid, the former political ideology of South Africa that mandated racial segregation. “The law was unjust,” Kani said. “The government was unjust. It was right to break that law.” After being exposed to Antigone, Kani realized that the theater was more than just a form of entertainment; it was a platform to communicate important ideas.

In 1975, Kani won a Tony Award alongside fellow actor and playwright Winston Ntshona in recognition of Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, two plays exposing apartheid for its brutal restrictions. In Sizwe Banzi, the title character is unable to return to South Africa without a set of working papers. Under apartheid, non-whites were required to carry proper identification at all times. Desperate and without options, Sizwe Banzi decides to assume the identity of a dead man. The play explores the protagonist’s moral ambiguity as he attempts to better his life, even if it means disrespecting the deceased.

Kani and Ntshona worked with Athol Fugard, another South African dramatist, to write The Island. The play takes place on Robben Island, a location off the coast of Cape Town, which, under apartheid, was used to hold political prisoners. Robben Island, like the rest of South Africa, was racially segregated during apartheid, making its prison representative of the situation throughout the country. Nelson Mandela was once a prisoner on Robben Island, and so was one of Kani’s brothers. The Island concerns two prisoners, chained together (as was the norm on Robben Island), who are preparing to perform Antigone in a prison-wide concert. The play ends on a bittersweet note, when only one of the two lead characters is granted freedom from imprisonment.

So how does he do it? “I never force it,” Kani said. “It has to visit me.” The process, he explained, is similar to having a child. A writer can try and try for months without success, until finally — in Kani’s words — an idea begins to “kick.” “And suddenly,” he said, “there’s an urge of the story that needs to be told.”

In particular, Kani writes in bouts, until his arm is sore enough to make him stop. He never rereads until finishing a given draft, and even then it’s after letting it sit for at least a week. “I’m amazed at some of the things I say,” added Kani, who stressed that brilliant lines may not immediately appear as such. It wasn’t Shakespeare who decided that “To be or not to be” was destined for literary memorability, Kani pointed out; it was his audience. “That’s the beauty of writing,” he said. Kani’s works usually involve three drafts, and from start to finish the creation of each play takes anywhere from three months to a year.

As much as Kani knows about writing, he’s likely just as much an expert on ubuntu, a concept he once met with great difficulty. When the abolishment of apartheid began in 1990, the majority of blacks in South Africa were hungry for revenge. “And then,” Kani said, almost with an eye-roll, “Nelson [Mandela] said we were going to opt for negotiations.” Leader of the African National Congress, Mandela backed his policy of nonviolence with the notion of ubuntu, which had been a fundamental part of African culture for generations.

At the time, being reminded of ubuntu seemed “unfair,” Kani recalled, when so many South Africans felt consumed with bitterness and hostility. It was as if Mandela was using their own culture against them. But Kani grew to respect Mandela’s policy. After all, he had encountered some good-intentioned whites in South Africa. For example, when Kani was nearly killed after suffering 11 stab wounds in an assassination attempt, it was a white doctor who saved him; while treating his wounds, the doctor hid Kani within a ward for infectious diseases.

Ubuntu stresses that all people are connected. “It is the thing that makes us human,” Kani said. “Metaphorically, it means ‘I am because we are.’ ” Under ubuntu, every person is a copy of God, so murder is never justified. Kani explained that ubuntu is rightfully universal, and that he wishes more Americans would embrace the concept. During his lecture, he cited the current archeological theory that identifies the first human being as a young African girl. “So actually we are all Africans,” said Kani, wearing a grin. “You’re just a little lighter than me is all.”

Certainly, he had little trouble relating to the students of Carnegie Mellon. “I am bowled over by these young people,” Kani said. “I’d love to put a fence around them so they’d never leave [school].” In the students, Kani was able to catch a glimpse of a part of life he was never able to experience. “Apartheid took the most important thing from me; it took away my youth,” he said. “I was never a child.” It also stunted his early adulthood. Years ago, Kani was originally set to attend law school, but his brother’s discriminatory arrest halted his plans.

Back in South Africa, Kani has his own young people to worry about. Kani’s present concern is the AIDS epidemic. Right now, he’s excited about the progress that’s being made. For example, each day, every radio station devotes an hour of programming intended to improve the situation. “They say, ‘Imagine an AIDS-free generation. It begins with you,’ ” Kani described. Billboards are also popping up throughout the country, containing messages including — according to Kani — “Don’t you want to see who wins world cup for FIFA in 2010?” (Also: “You don’t put it on, zip it up.”)

But Kani insists that the people most responsible for causing change (or lack thereof) are the parents. During the lecture, he called the AIDS crisis a “self-genocide” for his country. Kani stressed the importance of family dinners, parents talking to their children, and children looking up to their parents (not celebrities).

“I normally say to my sons,” Kani said, “ ‘I have invested in you, and I want my money back.’ ” The “money” could be success in any of its forms: family, love, art — anything. Behind the Tony, the battle scars, and the acclaim, Kani is most concerned with people, one family at a time. In his words: “We need to say, ‘I’m home, I’m home.’ ”

At the end of Kani’s lecture, those attending began to applaud, once again rising to their feet. This time, the standing ovation lasted at least twice as long.