The recent death of theatre luminary and royalty Winston Ntshona closes another sad chapter for a crop of actors, writers and theatre-provocateurs who embodied and personified a particular acting style which was mostly self-taught, but which also emerged as a result of and was perfected by the times.
In 1975, against all odds and much to their surprise (and I’d imagine that of the audience), Winston Ntshona and co-star John Kani shared the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for the double bill production of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island. Both these now iconic South African anti-apartheid plays would at that time have been running in one or more of the 41 professional theatres which make up Broadway located in the heart of New York City.
This achievement when placed in the context of the period becomes even more significant because it was both a historical and momentous achievement for two untrained actors. Through the two productions Winston Ntshona and John Kani were not only protesting the evils of Apartheid but also to a greater degree representing the aspirations, hopes and dreams of millions of black South Africans who were suffering under the yoke of the very oppressive and dehumanising system.
The annual Antoinette Perry Awards or the Tony Awards as they are commonly known were first presented in 1947. To this day they are still considered to be the highest achievement for any theatre practitioner and are bestowed on the very best after an extremely rigorous and thorough process of judging by professionals who make up the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League.
It is the equivalent to The Oscars for film, the Emmy’s for television, and the Grammy’s for music. In other words, the holy grail of artistic achievement in the theatre category. The Tony Awards are also considered to be equivalent to the Laurence Olivier Awards in the United Kingdom and the Molière Awards in France. That Winston Ntshona and John Kani (as black South African actors) actually won the Tony Awards at that time and that only in the last couple of years have we seen a surge in the issues of black representation and (lack of) diversity in The Oscar’s especially speaks volumes of their inimitable and world-class talents as actors.
Until then no black South Africa, or African for that matter, had won a Tony Award for anything and based on a quick check, to this day no one else has achieved that feat. Winston and John were certainly a cut above the rest and well ahead of their time!
That today we have so few of these ‘living legends’ left should in itself spur all concerned into urgent introspection but even more urgent action because 24 years into democracy acting, directing and play or script-writing curriculums are still very western and European in outlook and most if not all seemingly pay lip service to the likes of Winston Ntshona, John Kani, Gibson Kente, Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and many female theatre luminaries such as Brenda Fassie (yes she started off as an actress!), Nomsa Nene, Leleti Khumalo and many more whose names have not been given the same prominence as those of their male counterparts.
Whilst we can rave about and worship the likes of Konstantin Stanislavsky and his ‘Method Acting’ walk – we absolutely have to invest in capturing, recording and immortalising especially in text, but also film or video and all other available mediums the quintessentially South African acting, writing and directing style of the anti-Apartheid theatre-provocateurs!
Kudos to the one-day or one-week Master Classes done by some of these greats under the Department of Arts and Culture’s Living Legends project but more than that we have to WRITE!
There has always been the argument that as Africans our over-reliance on oral literature has meant that someone or anyone else from somewhere could come from nowhere and lay claim to our knowledge simply because they had ‘researched’ and written about it – much of these stories are painfully true.
We have no choice but to write our stories! It is a revolutionary responsibility and if we would like those that come after to know what we did and achieved then we absolutely have to write!
We can no longer find excuses or postpone this very important and urgent task and time is certainly against us for these stories, systems, methods and theories which form part of a rich tapestry of our indigenous knowledge systems to be recorded, written and packaged so they can stand the test of time and most importantly be passed on for generations to come.
Wintson Ntshona was born on 6 October 1941 in Port Elizabeth. He matriculated from Newell High School where he performed in school plays with John Kani. During the 1960s Winston worked at the Ford Motor Company plant in Port Elizabeth. In 1967, Ntshona joined the Serpent Players drama group where he continued working with Kani and also collaborated with Athol Fugard. One of the plays that emerged in 1972 was Sizwe Bansi is Dead, a collaboration between Kani, Fugard and Ntshona. This was followed by The Island in 1973.
Sizwe Banzi is Dead addresses the apartheid regime’s restrictive pass laws while The Island is inspired by a true story and is set in an unnamed prison. Ntshona appeared in around 20 Serpent Players productions between 1967 and 1972. The two plays were widely performed in South Africa and internationally.
In 1974 the two plays went on tour. In New York Ntshona received international recognition when he and Kani were awarded a Tony for best actor for both plays. Along with performing the plays, Kani and Ntshona conducted workshops in New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles.
In New York the two plays ran for 52 performances at the Edison Theatre on Broadway. On their return to South Africa in 1976 Kani and Ntshona began to tour rural areas of the country with Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island and conducted drama groups wherever the plays were performed. Ntshona and Kani were arrested and detained. They were released after mass demonstrations but did not perform The Island again until 1995.
Ntshona and Kani were also arrested after a third collaboration with Fugard, entitled Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act. Ntshona’s success in New York led to a series of film roles in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1978 he played the deposed President Julius Limbani (based on Moise Tshombe, a Congolese politician), the subject of a rescue attempt in the film The Wild Geese. This included a small role in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and A Dry White Season with Donald Sutherland in 1989. The film follows Ntshona’s character who enlists the help of a White South African, played by Sutherland, in finding out what became of his missing son under the apartheid regime. In 1984, Ntshona reunited with Kani and Fugard in the drama Marigolds in August. Ntshona also appeared in numerous theatrical productions such as the London run of Edward Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith and a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
In 2002 Nthsona directed a new play Ghetto Goats which had been created by three young actors from Port Elizabeth. On 27 April 2010, Ntshona was award The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for “His excellent contribution to theatre and the arts scene in South Africa”. Ntshona took a post as the chairman of the Eastern Cape Cultural Units arts agency working to interest young South Africans in theatre . He was also honoured with a Living Treasures award from South Africa’s National Arts Council. Biography courtesy of SA History Online.