The chatter coming from the audience turns to hushed tones as the lights grow dim. The light suddenly brings our focus to two men who are digging and moving gravel and heavy rocks. The work is clearly laborious as they constantly wipe sweat off their brows while also swiping at flies . This is the opening scene from The Island , a play directed by theatre genius John Kani.
The Island was first performed in 1973 and is one of the few productions including Woza Albert! and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead that have recently been bought back to local theatres. In The Island two friends John (played by Atandwa Kani) and Winston (played by Nat Ramabulana) spend most of their time in a prison cell, practising for their upcoming adaptation of Antigone, a play which they plan to perform at a concert with their fellow inmates. In between John’s enthusiasm towards the production and Winston’s reluctance to play a woman, we hear the two friends share stories about the families they were forced to leave behind. They also chat about how they came to be detained on the infamous Robben Island.
Watching the play 40 years later, I found myself wondering if it was relevant to the current generation of “Born Free’s”, as some people choose to call us. The play was without a doubt, enjoyable. Nat and Atandwa brought a lot of humour to a story that otherwise carries a lot of sadness. I laughed a lot throughout the play but when the stories of some of the humiliation these men suffered under the brutal Apartheid system got too deep, I struggled to relate to the pain. This is not to say that they deserved it. I also hope that it doesn’t come across as though I’m merely dismissing my history but it honestly was a different time- way before I was born.
There were, however, parts of the play that spoke to me as a young person in this country today. When Winston refused to play the role of a woman in the upcoming prison production, fearing that he would be mocked, it made me think about all the people in our society who are laughed at for not conforming to societal “norms of sexuality”. Something else struck me during Atandwa’s portrayal of King Creon during the prison play. While boasting about his lavish lifestyle, the king mentions his “palaces and compounds” . The audience giggled and I couldn’t help but think of those public figures who are always in the newspapers showing off their latest cars or mansions. This was a classic example of art imitating life.
I definitely would have had different thoughts and emotions if I was watching The Island in the 70s. Back then I would’ve been taking a major risk coming to the theatre to watch something that would have been seen as controversial. Today, luckily, it’s a different story. I found that the play tells the stories of many other men who did not become “struggle heroes”, yet also spent their days on this island prison. It’s a story of a struggle fought by many men and women whose names we’ll probably never know. More than anything, The Island made me appreciate this “freedom” that we now throw around like a ping pong ball. And for that reason, I found it pretty relevant.