Bonisile John Kani (1943 - )
The Order of Ikhamanga in
Profile of Bonisile John Kani
Bonisile John Kani was born on 30 August 1943 in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. After matriculating at Newell High School, he worked with drama groups in the New Brighton area, performing in schools and community halls. In 1965 Kani joined the Serpent Players drama group, making contact with Athol Fugard. It was to be the start of a long friendship and a time in which both men would attain fame and face persecution for their political beliefs.
Much of their work at that time, although experimental and improvisational, resulted in a number of published and unpublished works. One such play was Sizwe Bansi is Dead, which emerged from a collaboration by Kani, Fugard and Winston Ntshona, and was to be widely performed both in South Africa and abroad.
In 1974 he went on tour in the United States with Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island , and in New York achieved international recognition when he was awarded a Tony for best actor for his performances in both plays. He also conducted workshops in New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles during the tour.
In 1976 Kani toured Australia and worked with Aboriginal community groups in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. On his return to South Africa he began to tour the rural areas with Sizwe Banzi is dead and The Island, conducting drama groups wherever he went. He was later arrested and detained, then released after mass demonstrations. It marked the beginning of a painful relationship with the police.
In 1977 Kani became involved with Barney Simon and the new Market Theatre in Johannesburg, the beginning of a long association which involved not just theatrical work but social upliftment. In 1990, Kani and Simon established the Market Theatre Laboratory to provide training to young people who could not acquire theatrical skills because of a poor educational background.
In addition to winning the Tony ward, Kani has received a number of awards at different stages of his career. These include a merit award in 1987 from the Southern Transvaal Chamber of Commerce for his contribution to the struggle for liberation through culture, an honorary doctorate from the University of Durban-Westville for his invaluable contribution to the development of arts and culture during the struggle for liberation, the “Hiroshima Award for Peace’ and the Tribute Magazine “Titan of the Century’ award.
Kani has been intimately involved, in one capacity or another, in the long cycle of Fugard plays which changed the face of South African theatre. He has appeared in various local and foreign films and through the medium of theatre he has contributed to the process that brought radical change to South Africa.
After four decades in theatre, Bonisile John Kani has firmly secured his place in South Africa’s theatrical hall of fame.