What elevates Athol Fugard to the ranks of the world's great playwrights is his willingness to go too far — and his ability to pull it off. Honing his crafts — writer, director and actor — in apartheid South Africa, Fugard would have been worthy of acclaim if he had simply defied the ruling white class by dramatizing the guilt of the oppressors, as he did so memorably in 1982 with "Master Harold"... and the Boys.
But 10 years earlier, in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, Fugard also had the audacity to probe the shame of the oppressed. Nor was he so arrogant as to presume that a white man could fully express a black man's soul. Fugard collaborated with the two actors who comprised his cast, John Kani (in the roles of Styles and Buntu) and Winston Ntshona (Robert Zwelinzima/Sizwe).
In a country where theaters and theater companies were separated by race, Fugard's greatest audacity may have been in these collaborations. All of that bravery isn't nearly as fresh as it was before Nelson Mandela's breakthroughs, when Sizwe ought to have premiered in Charlotte. But in the current regional premiere at CAST, the sting of Fugard's script is far from stale. We bridge part of the distance in the hallway, with an installation that memorializes Mandela, who died on Dec. 5.
By recruiting Dr. Corlis Hayes as his co-director for this production, CAST artistic director Michael Simmons shows a humility that parallels the playwright's. Whatever the benefits or pitfalls of such an approach might be, the Hayes/Simmons team definitely clicks.
At CAST's Sizwe Bansi, in lieu of tickets, you get a curious apartheid artifact — a passbook. Very much like a passport, the passbook contained your birth certificate, photo ID, marriage license and work permit, which is why they were also regarded as "Books of Life" by non-whites who were required to carry them.
Every one of these CAST passbooks is Sizwe Bansi's, very much to the point in Fugard's drama. For Bansi will consider substituting Robert Zwelinzima's passbook for his own when an inkstamp in his own book not only blackballs him from working in the white sectors of Port Elizabeth but also demands that he return to King William's Town, where his wife and four children live.
While the crux of the story is rather simple, it unfolds with a fascinating obliquity, thanks largely to the engaging work by Devin Clark as Styles. The first scene is at Styles' photographic studio, where his long monologue is interrupted by the arrival of Robert/Sizwe. Clark's accent was so believable — and his delivery so natural — that I wouldn't be surprised if Fugard developed much of his script by asking Kani and Ntshona to tell him stories that illustrated what it's like to be black under apartheid. Answers to that question might sound very much like what we hear from Clark as he reads the morning paper aloud and schmoozes us.
Formally dressed for his studio portrait and with a noticeably different accent, Ron McClelland in the title role not only contrasts with Styles but with his own underlying desperation, illiterate and unemployed. The reality is vividly unveiled in the flashback that is the meat of the play, where we meet Sizwe and follow him through his life-changing decision. Here, Clark reappears as Buntu, the wily friend who teaches Sizwe the magic that can be accomplished with two passbooks and an X-acto knife. The action pivots midway through the three-part flashback as Sizwe and Buntu cap an evening at a local bar. McClelland gets a chance to show some range here as both chums are obviously inebriated.
Everything begins to change for Sizwe from the moment Buntu decides to duck into an alley for a piss. Fugard develops the story with admirable logic and pacing, sealing the issue the following day as Sizwe and Buntu wrestle over whether our hero should take advantage of the amazing good fortune that has dropped in his lap. It's a grim reality that Bansi would need to become a ghost if he grabs his chance.
We reach that realization as Fugard leads us to his deeper question: What value is there to a life that is only survived through humiliating servitude? It's a question that remains pertinent outside the sphere of our democratic society — and within — for billions of people every day. Sadly, that's why the local premiere of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead hasn't come at all too late.