Winston Ntshona Biography
Worked at Ford Plant, Shaped Plays in Workshops, Appeared in Films, Selected works
One of the most widely acclaimed plays internationally during the last decades of the twentieth century was The Island, which began its theatrical life in secret performances held in apartheid-era South Africa in 1973. The play was partly the creation of Winston Ntshona, one of the actors who appeared in it. The Island was a pointed and partly humorous protest against the conditions at South Africa's infamous Robben Island prison, where the country's future president, Nelson Mandela, had been serving a life sentence since 1964. But the play proved to have universal appeal, maintaining its popularity after apartheid was dismantled. It has been translated into more than 30 languages.
The Island and its companion piece Sizwe Bansi Is Dead have been staged in London, on Broadway in New York (where Ntshona and his co-star John Kani won Tony Awards in 1975), in Orlando, Florida, where The Island was performed by incarcerated teenage drug offenders, and in many other cities and countries, including Russia and Israel, where the main characters of The Island were played by Palestinian actors. These successes launched a long acting career for Ntshona, who starred in the key anti-apartheid film A Dry White Season and became a leading figure of the South African arts scene.
Worked at Ford
Winston Ntshona was born on October 6, 1941, in Cape Elizabeth, in South Africa's Eastern Cape region. His remarkable stage chemistry with John Kani began to take shape as the two performed in plays together in high school. Staying on in Port Elizabeth and working in a lab at a Ford Motor Company plant, Ntshona was introduced by Kani to the Serpent Players, a theater group founded by the anti-apartheid white South African playwright Athol Fugard and so named because its stage lay above what had once been a snake pit.
Fugard aided the careers of Ntshona and Kani in various ways. At a time when black South African adults were required by law to carry a passbook whose contents dictated where they could and could not travel within the country, he invented a fictitious employment status for Ntshona as his chauffeur (Kani became a gardener). Ntshona thus was able to perform with the company for white theater enthusiasts, even if he and Kani faced brushes with South Africa's Special Branch security service as they traveled to performances. But when Ntshona first joined the Serpent Players, in the mid-1960s, the group's productions did not reflect the dehumanizing reality of black South African life. Instead, they tended to perform European theatrical classics and other imported productions.
That changed after the company's members demanded plays that connected with what their black audiences were experiencing and striving for outside the theater. Where no plays existed, the troupe members worked to improvise new ones. And as the movement for black South African equality began to rise in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was theater that took the lead in circulating new ideas among progressive South Africans. After all, a play was much harder for white South African authorities to censor than a publication was; if Ntshona and Kani memorized their lines, a play could be staged anywhere, with minimal sets, on short notice. Ntshona appeared in about 20 Serpent Players productions between 1967 and 1972.
Shaped Plays in Workshops
All these developments set the stage for first Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and then The Island. Both plays were developed by Ntshona and Kani in improvisatory Serpent Players workshop sessions in the early 1970s, with the two actors drawing on their experiences of apartheid. Although the plays were initially credited to Fugard, they were in large part the work of the two actors, with Fugard serving as director. Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, a darkly comic fable about a black migrant worker who debates ways of assuming a new identity in order to obtain a travel pass, broke new ground in South African theater. And The Island, which depicted two Robben Island cellmates who decide to stage an in-prison production of the ancient Greek classic Antigone as one of them is given a life sentence, took direct aim at the apartheid system. The character Antigone herself, who defies orders so that she can see her brother properly buried, held strong meaning for black South Africans.
By even mentioning Nelson Mandela's name, which Ntshona and Kani did, they were breaking the law. The Island kept a low profile at first, quickly moving from place to place among homes and community centers in segregated black areas when it was first performed in 1973. When it moved to the larger Space Theater in Cape Town, the South African government tried to ban it without success. The play moved to the Royal Court theater in London, England in 1974 and was soon an international hit, winning critical waves and an unusual dual Tony Award for Ntshona and Kani after its Broadway run in 1975. The two were in fact arrested after a 1976 performance of the play in South Africa. They were released, but they did not perform The Island again in South Africa until 1995. They were also arrested after performing in a third collaboration with Fugard, Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act.
Part of the success Ntshona and Kani achieved was due to the way they blended comedy into profoundly serious subject matter. Ntshona delighted audiences as the Greek princess Antigone, complaining as he donned a mop wig and fake breasts to take on the role. Even the white police officers assigned to keep tabs on Ntshona ended up enjoying his performances. "One time we were doing Sizwe in Natal [province]," he told Newsweek, "and just before I walked on I saw two or three policemen walking into the theater. I thought they were coming to [arrest us]. Then the first guy left and more came in. By the time we finished there was a good percentage of policemen [in the audience]. As it turned out, the first guy that came in to see the show, a white police captain, enjoyed it, and …called his colleagues to come and enjoy themselves and they sure did—laughed themselves sick."
Appeared in Films
While The Island, in the words of the Times of London, "unleashed a revolution in S[outh] A[frican] theatre," Ntshona's success in New York led to a series of film roles in the 1980s and 1990s. He made his debut with a small role in The Wild Geese (1978) and was reunited with Kani and Fugard in the 1984 drama Marigolds in August. That film explored the conflicts among blacks that apartheid engendered, featuring Ntshona as a gardener protecting his employment turf from a still poorer interloper (Kani). "Ntshona and Kani are, as always, irresistible. They never play for sympathy: they play two men who are sympathetic," wrote New Republic reviewer Stanley Kauffmann.
Ntshona's most substantial film role came in 1989's A Dry White Season, a hard-hitting anti-apartheid film in which his character enlists the help of a white South African, played by Donald Sutherland, in finding out what became of his missing son. Ntshona also appeared in other theatrical productions, including a London run of Edward Albee's The Death of Bessie Smith and a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a play that had influenced the two-man format of The Island. In London in 2002 he directed a new play, Ghetto Goats, which was collaboratively created by three young actors from Port Elizabeth, working in much the same way as he himself had 30 years earlier.
Ntshona and Kani reunited several times for productions of The Island, announcing after a 2003 tour that it would be their last. By that time the play had taken on a life of its own. Ntshona continued to live in South Africa, taking a post as chairman of the Eastern Cape Cultural Units arts agency in later life and working to interest young South Africans in theater. He was famous enough to appear in television commercials, and he was honored with a Living Treasures award from South Africa's National Arts Council. Although he had played a large part in creating theater pieces that changed the world, his name was mostly absent from theatrical histories and reference books.
The Wild Geese, 1978.
Marigolds in August, 1984.
A Dry White Season, 1989.
The Air Up There, 1993.
Tarzan and the Lost City, 1998.
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (performer, co-author, with John Kani and Athol Fugard), 1972.
The Island (performer, co-author, with John Kani and Athol Fugard), 1973.
The Death of Bessie Smith, 1979.
Waiting for Godot, 1980-81.
Kennedy, Dennis, ed., Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, Oxford, 2003.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 17, 2003, p. P22.
New Republic, July 2, 1984, p. 24.
New York Times, June 20, 1984, p. C21.
Newsweek (International ed.), March 27, 2000, p. 32.
Orlando Sentinel, June 21, 1993, p. D1.
Time, September 25, 1989, p. 78.
Times (London, England), February 6, 2000.
Washington Post, November 4, 2001, p. G1; November 9, 2001, p. C1.
"Ghetto Goats," Young Vic Theatre (London, England), www.youngvic.org/htmlonly/play25.html (March 1, 2005).
"Top Actors Headline Coega Ad Drive," Coega Development Corporation, www.coega.co.za/NewsView.asp?NewsID=488 (March 1, 2004).
"Winston Ntshona," All Movie Guide, www.allmovie.com (March 1, 2005).
"Winston Ntshona," National Arts Council of South Africa: Living Treasures Awards, www.nac.org.za/showcase_W_Ntshona.html (March 1, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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