Winston Ntshona obituary
South African actor who won international acclaim with the anti-apartheid dramas Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island
Fri 31 Aug 2018 12.55
The career of the South African actor and writer Winston Ntshona, who has died aged 76, encompassed both a period of solitary confinement in prison under the apartheid regime and a Tony award on Broadway.
Ntshona and his political, theatrical and personal comrade, John Kani, alongside their director and co-deviser, the playwright Athol Fugard, achieved international fame with two plays in the early 1970s. Sizwe Banzi Is Dead concerned a man who fakes his own death in order to get work using another man’s identity papers. The Island was set in a recognisable political prison and was presented at a time when neither Robben Island’s name nor its most famous detainee, Nelson Mandela, could be named.
In 1972-73 the plays premiered at the Space theatre in Cape Town. I was working there at the time and saw early performances of these shattering pieces, including the very first of Sizwe. Ntshona’s powers of vocal and physical expression, the wit of his playing and his ability to send out thunderbolts of pain were revelatory. He tended to show things, indicating stories and reacting with his body, whereas the more ebullient Kani tended to tell them. Kani improvised, whereas Ntshona made prepared material feel as if it was improvised, and they complemented each other very well.
The plays went on to feature in a South African season at the Royal Court theatre, London, and transferred to the Ambassadors in the West End, winning the London Theatre Critics award. Broadway productions of the two ran in repertoire in 1974 at the Edison theatre, and the following year Ntshona and Kani jointly won the Tony award for best actor for both pieces. Both plays were regularly performed around the world over the next four decades, with Ntshona and Kani reunited in a production of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead at the Lyttelton theatre in London in 2007.
Born in New Brighton, a black people’s township outside Port Elizabeth in Eastern Cape, Winston was the son of Keke Ntshona, a hospital clerk, and his wife, Mary, a domestic servant. He began acting with Kani during their schooldays together at Newell High in New Brighton. When they left school they did a variety of jobs, Ntshona becoming a lab technician in a timber factory and Kani finding employment at Port Elizabeth’s Ford plant.
In the late 1960s they started working with Fugard and the Serpent Players company, rehearsing with others of all races, secretly and illegally, in Fugard’s home in the white area of Schoenmakerskop.
Ntshona and Kani often performed under the noses of the apartheid authorities. Only once were they arrested. In October 1976, while they were playing in the Transkei town of Butterworth, Sizwe Banzi was declared to be “vulgar, abusive and inflammatory” by the region’s justice minister, a black supporter of the apartheid government. Kani recalled that on the night of their arrest, as their van stopped at the station in Umtata (since renamed Mthatha), their young white police guard seemed ready to shoot them. He leaned forward and whispered: “I saw your play last night.” Then, after a pause, he added: “I thought it was wonderful.” The two men spent 15 days in solitary confinement and were released only after an international campaign.
Both appeared in the film The Wild Geese (1978), directed by Andrew V McLaglen, with Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris as the veteran mercenaries hired to rescue Ntshona as an imprisoned African president. In A Dry White Season (1989), with Donald Sutherland and Marlon Brando, Ntshona, playing a gardener, Gordon Ngubene, acted one scene with such power that, according to the director, Euzhan Palcy, Sutherland broke down and filming was stopped until he had recovered.
Other film credits included Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), The Power of One (1992), which starred John Gielgud and Morgan Freeman, Tarzan and the Lost City (1998), I Dreamed of Africa (2001), directed by Hugh Hudson, and Blood Diamond (2006), which starred Leonardo DiCaprio. Ntshona and Kani were reunited with Fugard in Marigolds in August (1980), based on one of his plays.
On the stage, the two actors appeared in a production of Waiting for Godot in 1980, directed by Donald Howarth with a multiracial cast approved by Samuel Beckett, that went on from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London and New York.
In 2010 Ntshona was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga by the South African president. He also received a lifetime achievement award from the South African TV industry. In the arts precinct of Port Elizabeth, Chapel Street was renamed Winston Ntshona Street.
In the last 10 years illness forced Ntshona to do less work. He devoted more of his time to mentoring young artists.
He is survived by his wife, Vuyi (Vuyelwa), his sons, Xola and Laula, and his daughters, Nomfundo and Zomzi.
• Winston Zola Ntshona, actor and writer, born 6 October 1941; died 2 August 2018
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