One of the reasons that Athol Fugard is such a great playwright is his ability to take a specific human situation and imbue it with a universal sheen.
Though some of the politics that inspired his 1972 Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (co-written with the original performers, John Kani and Winston Ntshona) have changed, there's no dating the warmth and humanity in the show, a point made clear in the New World Stage presentation of the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production, directed with a light but clear touch by the iconic Peter Brook.
It's a fine piece of story theatre, played out on a largely bare stage using taped cardboard boxes, a series of metal frames and a few pieces of clothing. But the heart of the show comes from the two actors, Habib Demblélé and Womba Konga, who play out this series of tales within tales.
The piece, created as South African township theatre in New Brighton, reflects the lives of the characters (and undoubtedly the first actors, too), black in a white-controlled world. As the distressed title character says toward the end of the piece, "Our skin is trouble."
We first meet Styles (Demblélé), a worker in a South African Ford plant who narrates and enacts an episode in which Henry Ford Jr visits the factory. Comic but with a sinister undercurrent, the incident provokes Styles to become a photographer. He then meets a man who calls himself Robert Zwenlizima (Konga), and we move back in time to discover the relationship between Zwenlizima and the title character.
The story is riveting, though its presentation is often light-hearted. One of the strengths of this production, in fact, is the playful relationship between the two actors, who transform into numerous characters to populate this two-tiered society. The big Konga and the small Demblélé have great chemistry, and the simplicity of the storytelling allows them to engage us simply and directly, especially when they break the fourth wall.
What at first seems an indictment of the identity pass that black South Africans were required to carry under apartheid becomes a play about identity, about self-definition, that touches everyone, everywhere.
Presented in French with English surtitles, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead runs through Sunday (April 22) at Harbourfront's Enwave Theatre. See the theatre listings page for details.