BWW Interview: Reviewing Democracy and Exploring Humanity in KUNENE AND THE KING with John Kani
Outlined as a "moving and funny two-hander", playwright, actor and activist John Kani describes his latest play KUNENE AND THE KING as a review of the past 25 years of South African democracy. From plotlines to politics, Kani sits down with Broadway World in between rehearsals to discuss the anticipated international debut of his new production.
BWW: To start with, can you give us a bit more of the storyline of KUNENE AND THE KING?
John: Lunga Kunene was born in Queenstown, wanting to be a doctor. Because of the political situation and his father dying, Lunga gave up his dream and went to train as a nurse. Years later he is retired doing private client high care work and begins caring for Jack Morris, a liberal, white actor with stage 4 liver cancer preparing for his role in KING LEAR. They're both at the end of their journeys, generally, and they meet and realize that they need each other. In this play, Jack teaches Lunga Shakespeare, but Lunga teaches Jack about humanity.
What was the lead up to writing this play? Where did the inspiration come from?
John: I wrote the play because my first play, NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, dealt with forgiveness. My second play was examining the return of exiles who had cross-culture relationships. When people come home to South Africa after Mandela was released, they realize how "non-African" they are. They are more national in the countries they have been living in! With this play I'm looking at the 25 years of our democracy - the pillars of non-racialism, non-sexism, justice, fairness and of course racial relationships.
Aside from democracy, what other themes are being explored in KUNENE AND THE KING?
John: Freedom for the white side meant loss of a lot; freedom to the black man meant gain a lot. The play deals in this relationship of these two men who need each other: one needs a job and one needs a helper. For the first time, this non-racial South Africa is tested in one house with two men that have to deal with each other. KUNENE AND THE KING asks what have we done with racism, reconciliation and the needs of people.
How did the idea of this relationship between two men come about in writing the play?
John: In 2009 I was doing THE TEMPEST and Tony (Sir Antony Sher) was playing Prospero. I was watching how we were working together because we were conflicting characters. There was that little bit of strained conflict and I thought there would be something I would like to work on together. Tony was open to the idea and
finally, from the beginning of last year, I had this little voice knocking in my conscience: there are these two guys in one space, what are they? It went on from there.
Did you always have Antony in mind for the role?
John: No, I was looking at other South African actors because this is a South African man growing up now in society where we are branded as the "most unequal society in the world"! When I was writing the first draft, I knew Tony was doing KING LEAR. I sent the script to him and told him about the characters and how I weaved the story of KING LEAR into the storyline. Surprise surprise, "Great job! I want to play the old man!" says Tony. This was only chapter one and they wanted me to bring it to the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). From there, the whole process started and Tony and I sat down to talk about the play.
How did you two then decide on Janice Honeyman as director?
John: We both decided we wanted someone we have both worked with before. The three of us have been in the same room so many times that we weren't going to need to learn about each other and understand the director. The work was more important than having to build connections between us.
Having Janice work on previous production of yours, what do you think makes her the perfect fit for a John Kani play?
John: I write about the human condition, as a South African. I sometimes see South Africa with the spectacles of the past and there will then be a political content in my writing. I chose Janice Honeyman because she is apolitical. You put Janice in a rehearsal room and all she is interested in is the human story and relationships; the whole political thing becomes a distant canvas in the back.
KUNENE AND THE KING sounds like quite the emotional journey! What sort of trajectory are audiences taken on during this production?
John: What I'm trying to do in KUNENE AND THE KING is trying to wipe that out and get to a point where I say do you see me. When we get to a point where that is the first contact, we're building a better relationship. We need to no longer see ourselves defined by our past or our locations. I start the two men so far apart where they can't stand each other, but slowly as they reach the end, it's like they are two brothers.
Did you write the play with yourself in mind as Lunga?
John: This is the problem I have: I write a play and I give it to a director and they say, "I'll do it one condition: if you play the role". I do not really write for John Kani. I write having in mind these two, three or four characters not seeing who is going to inhabit these lives but I read it afterwards and think, so-and-so would be fantastic in this role.
How do you strike the balance then with being both writer and actor during the creative process?
John: In rehearsals, I have to step out as a writer and be the actor. Janice once said to me, "I know the writer, but he is not here. Can I ask you a question about this line?". If the writer is in the rehearsal room, he is protective of text. He doesn't want to change anything - but the director and actors should find their own interpretations. So I'm able to throw him out of the rehearsal room.
The anticipated world premiere in Stratford-upon-Avon - how do you think an international audience will resonate with a story that is set in and close to South African context?
John: That's the beauty of art: art is universal. You may have a stronger resonance for the people for which you think it was created but it deals with something that you cannot claim as African or non-African: the humanity. I never write a play thinking what is this going to say to South African or British audiences. My work is a mirror of life. You look, and you see yourself. Do you like yourself, or do you not like yourself? Do you look and do you things that are raised in the story that you could attend to? That's how I write - I have no location of the play. I am a citizen of the world, or no world at all!
You've been through so much in your theatrical and political career - is KUNENE AND THE KING one that you ever thought you were going to tell?
John: It's unbelievable for me and I tried to explain this to my children: as a young man somewhere in South Africa, he writes a play and it's included in the Royal Shakespeare Company 2019 theatre season. Wow. Maybe I'll understand it a little later, but what has happened to me is an incredible honour.
Photo credit: Claude Barnardo
KUNENE AND THE KING will be performed at The Fugard Theatre from 30 April 2019 Tuesday to Saturdays at 8pm with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets ranging from R190 to R340 can be booked directly through The Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or through The Fugard Theatre's website at www.thefugard.com.