Played out deep in the bowels of The Monument, The Island tells a story of resilience, resistance, and an innate sense of freedom in the face of oppression.
The play, written by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, is nothing short of a classic. Now, 45 years since its first performance, this apartheid-era production was shared with audiences at the 2018 National Arts Festival, directed by Chris Weare.
The story is told through two inmates, John (Siya Mayola) and Winston (Luntu Masiza) who are introduced to the audience in a scene well-acquainted with the atrocious Robben Island prison conditions. Now these conditions are not just weather or dimension related – which is what most tourists connote with the place – because the island also conditions the minds, bodies and values upheld by the political prisoners it restrains within.
The characters share a cell inside which they tend to each other’s wounds, talk of hope and freedom, and also rehearse for the unavoidable prison concert. The pair, while preparing for ‘The Trial of Antigone’, offer audiences a parallel yet eerily similar story of questioning legal and positional power in society at the time.
While John remains optimistic in the face of adversity personified by Hodoshe, a prison guard, Winston presents a more human reaction to such living conditions. Winston portrays what the audience expects, and John portrays what the audiences hope to be in the same circumstances. This raw juxtaposition by Mayola and Masiza is what makes the story so believable.
Both men are anti-Apartheid political activists who, after having been arrested, question their sense of purpose in life and what effects their decisions have had on their families. These questions resonate with those faced by the likes of famous anti-colonial and anti-Apartheid activists around the world, and orientate the audience to the person’s unique yet collective struggle to attain basic freedoms. Throughout the production audiences are treated to a powerful delivery of personal struggles of emasculation, demeaning treatment, and how the proverbial carrot of freedom dangles just out of reach while the hypocritical stick of prison questions the motivations of these activists.
What captured my humanity was the moment when John finds out that his prison sentence has been reduced, and how the initial excitement of early freedom is threatened by the fear of its immediate removal, and the undoubted sadness of leaving Winston behind on the island. Masiza and Mayola deliver stellar performances, and imbue their characters with such passion and authenticity, that it’s hardly a wonder that on 4 July, they were awarded their well-deserved Standard bank Ovation Award.
John and Winston presented the less glamorous and more human aspects of political activism in the pursuit of freedom.
We all want to be free. We all want our rights to be respected by those in power. We have all achieved the levels of freedoms people before us perished fighting for. And yes, it was a fight. A fight against adversity. A fight against the label of “sub-human” that dictated what opportunities and resources were available to you. A fight against racialised oppression. A fight against exploitation of an entire people. A fight of right versus wrong that continuously had its worth questioned. A fight to reclaim black people’s rightful place in the world, which South Africa among other African nations can be proud to have won.
Makhanda audiences were enthralled by the production and left the venue with more than just an excellent theatre experience. I’d like to believe that they left with a renewed respect for what the people of this nation did to build it into the South Africa we grew up in, but also with a renewed sense of motivation to persevere in taking our country to greater heights.
By Shraddha Patnala