An incredible, powerful, eternal journey

John Kani, who will play Simon the gravedigger in The Train Driver at the Market Theatre this May, has been working and collaborating with Fugard since the genesis of their careers. Creative Feel spoke to the acclaimed actor, director and playwright.

     ‘I met Fugard in 1965 when we were doing Antigone,’ says John Kani. He was introduced to the playwright with the words ‘John, this is Athol and Athol, this is John’, with Fugard extending his hand to shake Kani’s. Kani waited, confused by this – ‘I was supposed to be introduced this way: “John, this is Mr Fugard”, “Mr Fugard, this is John”. How the hell do I go on first-name basis with this man like I’ve known him all my life? But then I took his hand and he shook mine, very warmly, just like that, and said, “Let’s go in”.
     ‘It was during a very difficult time in my life because we were thinking of leaving the country to go for military training,’ says Kani. ‘But it was impossible because the security had closed all borders. So it was in a frustrated manner that I went to this rehearsal.
     ‘In the discussion of the play, we asked: if the state is unjust, do the people have the right to fight and oppose? This is what made me stay and not leave South Africa. I thought perhaps this platform could be a different weapon, that is, the stage for change.’

To pay tribute to Athol Fugard and work together with the Market Theatre – to really talk about this man, talk about his work, his role in the South African landscape, I mean socially, dramatically and politically – that is why I am doing The Train Driver

     Kani and Fugard’s relationship was ‘built on trust and the truth, but we both had one desire for a free society. Our journeys were meeting somewhere and we thought perhaps we could exploit the given situation. This man can go into this door because he is white. Maybe he leaves it open and does not close it behind him like many white South Africans did. He opens it. He does say before he sits down, “I am not alone”. He does not say to me: “You do understand”.’
     When James Ngcobo called about the Athol@86 season, Kani said, ‘I really want this, I want to be part of this moment for my friend’, but needed to get his schedule sorted out with Disney, which he is currently under contract with until July 2019 for the upcoming CGI live action The Lion King film. Fortunately, he is only needed after June this year.

Fugard@86
John Kani PHOTO Brett Rubin

     ‘To pay tribute to Athol Fugard and work together with the Market Theatre – to really talk about this man, talk about his work, his role in the South African landscape, I mean socially, dramatically and politically – that is why I am doing The Train Driver.
     ‘I grew up with this man, this man is close to me. Sometimes I say even more than my brothers and close cousins. I am even the godfather of his daughter, Lisa, and his daughter is a godmother of my daughter. So I have a long history with him. Instead of, having to do research in the rehearsal room, I am present. I can talk about the time, about what was important when the play was written, about what was happening in his life and where Athol was in his life, what he was dealing with,’ says Kani.
     ‘When you read The Train Driver, it is an incredible, powerful, eternal journey of this one white person who blames himself and needs to come to terms with why he was the one chosen to kill this black woman and her four children.

When you read The Train Driver, it is an incredible, powerful, eternal journey of this one white person who blames himself and needs to come to terms with why he was the one chosen to kill this black woman and her four children

     ‘One has to understand the situation in which this train driver finds himself and that he finds, in this desolate place of the dead, silence; in a graveyard you can at least hear yourself think.
     ‘He finds this old man who is a gravedigger and he finds someone who can listen to him. When they meet for the first time, he is shocked that this guy can see him. It’s two human beings who stop in the middle of everything that is going on in our country, and in life generally, and scrape off all of the unnecessary issues that surround our business – our going somewhere, coming somewhere, doing this, not doing that – and suddenly two human beings stop. Four eyes meet. They see each other and they can hear each other. As they are listening to each other, they acquire that unique quiet moment of having a conversation. “I have a story to tell you”.

I really want this, I want to be part of this moment for my friend

     ‘This is the beauty of this play,’ says Kani. ‘The fact that there is another pair of eyes and ears that are willing. All this time, this young person has been struggling with this horrific accident, having therapists saying to him that it is not his fault. He said “no, not until she says it was her fault, she has to say it to me. She can’t do that to me” and this is where the old man at the graveyard interacts with him. He becomes a clinical psychologist that analyses how his brain works and finally arms him with a process of resolution, and in coming to a resolution, he accepts this as part of life. There is closure in the end, which he gets from being counselled by this old man.
     ‘For the Market Theatre or for South Africa, including the other theatres that want to honour Athol Fugard in his 86th year, for me it is important that we take time in this South Africa to honour our own. That this does not become a posthumous ceremony,’ says Kani. ‘For me to take a moment and say we are paying tribute to Athol Fugard as South Africans and as Africans is important and it is one of the reasons that made me agree to be part of this project.’

Athol 86: A celebration of Athol Fugard at the Market with James Ngcobo
An incredible, powerful, eternal journey with John Kani
A uniquely human perspective with Charmaine Weir-Smith