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Sizwe Banzi is Dead | MAST Mayflower Studios

Sizwe Banzi, an African man seeking employment, is told by authorities that he has just three days to leave his home in Port Elizabeth. With his identity book stamped, his fate is sealed. Or is it? The play opens in a photography studio, located in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where we meet Styles. The stage design is what you’d expect of a photography studio, the perfect place to play host to the stories told throughout the show. Outlining the whole stage, resembling the walls and ceiling of the studio, were numerous photo frames. The beauty to this is that the characters seemed to use these frames during their storytelling to frame key moments and memories for the audience. John Pfumojena (director and actor) sets the scene as Styles, making you feel warm and welcome in the studio, so much so that the auditorium becomes a very intimate space. Without explicitly saying anything of the sort, Styles invites you to reflect on themes of oppression and resilience. Pfumojena’s storytelling was truly remarkable, successfully commanding the stage for almost half of the show as a solo performer. Reflecting on previous work and events, he multi roles as himself, his bosses, his colleagues and so many more. His ability to entertain the audience as if at a standup comedy show was an interesting direction that few had expected.

As strong as Pfumojena’s performance was, he was on stage for forty minutes before Wisdom Iheoma emerged as Robert Swelinzima and it slowly began to feel as though the key story at hand was being lost to a sub-plot. Iheoma enters the scene in a flash of light and haze of smoke, a single camera click sounds and a new moment has been framed. Introducing himself as Robert, a man requesting a photo to send to his wife, he instantly adds a sense of unease to the warm, intimate space that had once been in tact. Shifting from the light humour used throughout Pfumojena’s storytelling, Iheoma uses a more direct and intense tone – this forcing the audience, for the first time, to see a slightly harsher reality. Standing to have his photo taken, Robert freezes and, with another flash and sound of the camera click, the audience is transported back to the day that Sizwe Banzi finds a dead body – that of Robert Swelinzima. As the namesake of the play is now in action, the darker elements of the story at hand begin to rise to the surface; the audience is confronted with the harsh realities of work life in third world countries. The laughter fades almost too quickly and it could be said that the direction of the show was too focused on being funny and lighthearted to begin with. As Sizwe contemplates abandoning his own identity to start fresh, his growing agitation and stress fill the auditorium, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. Displaying character traits so different to what the audience has come to expect from this production, Iheoma delivers an equally strong performance alongside his co-actor.

Written more than fifty years ago, the need for this story, and those similar, is still so high. This show is just a snapshot of African culture and history, framed for audiences of the future. Running until the end of October at MAST Mayflower Studios, Exeter’s Barnfield Theatre, Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Theatre by Lake Keswick, Sizwe Banzi is Dead deserves audiences to witness these stories and realities with open-mindedness. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review


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