John Kani

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John Kani (1943-) is a renowned actor, director, playwright and theatre administrator.


Born Bonisile John Kani in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth on 30 August 1943. One source gives his date of birth as 30 November 1942. He completed his high school education at Newell High School, where he and his friend Winston Ntshona performed in numerous school plays.

On finishing high school he began working for working the Ford Motor Company, while continuing to be engaged in theatre, as a member of various drama groups in the New Brighton area, performing in schools and community halls. In 1965 he became a member of the Serpent Players drama group and met Athol Fugard, and by 1973 Kani had become a full-time professional actor with a growing reputation. From there he went on to become not only one of the most celebrated actors in South Africa, but also a successful playwright, director and prominent and influential arts manager.

His son Atandwa Kani also became an actor.

Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and/or performance

He worked with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona on plays such as The Terrorists and The Coat (1966). Later came Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973) at The Space. The group would create some of the more significant early protest theatre in the country, plays such as The Terrorists and The Coat (1966), a process that led to the local and international success of plays such as Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973).

As actor

This success became the launching pad for an illustrious career as an actor for Kani, making him a much sought after leading actor in the 1980s and further, often participating in highly controversial anti-apartheid work such as Master Harold and the boys (Fugard, Market Theatre, 1983), the localized version of Miss Julie (1986), My Children!, My Africa! (1989) and Janet Suzman's fine Othello at the Market Theatre in 1987.

His role as John in Bobby Heaney’s localized production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie opposite Sandra Prinsloo's "Miss Julie", originated at the Baxter and also performed at the Market in Febr. He also starred as the first black Othello in South Africa, directed by Janet Suzman for the Market Theatre in 1987.

In the late 1980s beginning 1990s he worked with Fugard once again on the latter’s “plays of healing” - most notably as the troubled and kind Master in My Children!, My Africa! (19**) and the guard in Playland (Fugard, 1992).

In 2004 he played "Creon" in a new version of Antigone for the Baxter Theatre and in 2005 Claudius in Janet Suzman’s Hamlet (Baxter Theatre).

At the Market Theatre: The Blood Knot; Driving Miss Daisy; The Native Who Caused All the Trouble; Othello; The Lion and the Lamb; Sizwe Bansi is Dead; The Island; Waiting for Godot; The Death of Bessie Smith; My Children!, My Africa!' He starred in Barney Simon’s production of Edward Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith together with Janet Suzman and Winston Ntshona at the Market in 1979. Sizwe Bansi is Dead was staged at The Market in 1978.

He starred in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot together with Winston Ntshona and Pieter-Dirk Uys. It was directed by Donald Howarth and staged at the Baxter and at the Market in 1980 before leaving for the USA and Britain.

He starred in Bobby Heaney’s productions of Harold Pinter’s One for the Road at the Wits Theatre in 1985. He starred in Janet Suzman’s production of Othello at the Market in September 1987. He directed Kessie Govender’s Kagoos at the Market in 1988. He starred in Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. He starred in Athol Fugard’s My Children!, My Africa! in 1989. He starred in Playland at the Market in 1992.

In 1994 he starred in Tom Kempinski’s Duet for One at the Market Theatre. This was his first play since the elections in April 1994 put a democratically elected government in power in South Africa. In an interview with Richard McNeill, published in the Sunday Times, he stated that for the first time he felt free of the burden of the politics, the correctness, the relevance, the suitability, of his work.

He wrote and performed in Nothing but the Truth (2002), Missing... (2014), Kunene and the King (2019)

Film credits:

He has also done a great deal of film and television work, among his most notable performances being leading roles in The Wild Geese (1978), The Grass is Singing (), Marigolds in August, Victims of Apartheid, An American Dream, A Dry White Season, Sarafina, Saturday Night at the Palace, Yesterday, In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema and Apartheid (1993), Soweto Green (1995), The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), Kini and Adams (1997), The Tichborne Claimant (1998), Final Solution (2001), Silent Witness (Finding Rachel, 2008), Endgame (2009), Coriolanus (2011), Janapriyan (2011), How to Steal 2 Million (2011), Jail Caesar (2012), The Suit (2016, Short film), Captain America: Civil War (playing "T'Chaka", 2016), Black Panther (2018, playing "T'Chaka") Murder Mystery (2019), The Lion King ("Rafiki"'s voice, 2019), Seal Team (2021)

TV roles:

Besides filmed-for-TV versions of the plays Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (BBC2 Playhouse, 1974), Master Harold...and the Boys ( 1985), Miss Julie (1986), Othello (1989), , he also appeared in a number of TV programmes and dedramas, including

Kap der Rache (1997, German TV), Hillside (2005-2008), The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (2008), Silent Witness (2008), iNkaba (2012), Wallander (2015), What If...? (voice of "T.Chaka", 2021).

As playwright

He helped create and workshop Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973). He wrote and performed in Nothing but the Truth (2002), Missing (2014), Kunene and the King (2019).

As a director

His credits include Friday's Bread on Monday (1970), Goree and Blues Africa Café (Matsemela Manaka), Kagoos (Kessie Govender, 1988), The Meeting (Jeff Stetson), Nothing but the Truth (Kani, 2002), Othello (2011).

He directed several commercials.

As administrator

During the latter part of the 1980s Kani was gradually drawn into theatre and cultural adminstration and politics, to become a Trustee of the Market Theatre and its Artistic Director of the after the death of Barney Simon, Director of the Market Theatre Laboratory and finally Executive Director of the Market Theatre.

He has also played a prominent part on the boards of PACT, the National Arts Council, the Grahamstown Arts Festival, the Apartheid Museum and similar forums.

Awards, etc

Kani has won numerous awards over the years, including the 1974/5 Tony Award for The Island and Sizwe Bansi is Dead in America. In 1993 he received a special Obie Award in New York for his contribution to theatre.

Among his numerous national and international honours are honorary doctorates from the Universities of Durban Westville and Rhodes, the 2000 Hiroshima Renaissance Merit award [1] for Peace from the Swedish Academy and the 2003 SAB Leadership and Service Award. *** [see PD Uys piece]??**

My Children!, My Africa! (AA Vita Award 1990 for his role as Mr. M.).

He won a Naledi Lifetime Achiever Award, February 2005.

John has received a Merit Award from NAFCOC for his contribution to the advancement of culture in South Africa.

Directed several commercials and won the M-Net Plum Award and was a finalist in the Lourie (Loerie?) Awards.

The main theatre of the Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, has been renamed The John Kani Theatre in his honour.

He received the Naledi Theatre World Impact Award on 20 May 2019 [2] and in 2021 he was honoured with the prestigious Pragnell Shakespeare Award [3] for his play Kunene and the King [4].

Order of Ikhamanga in Silver[1]


Tucker, 1997.

Playland programme notes, 1992.

Interview with Richard McNeill, published in Sunday Times, 10 July 1994.

The Star, 15 February 2005.

Rapport, 2 April 2006.

Beeld Plus, 26 July 2007.

Numerous entries in the NELM catalogue.

Sowetan Live [5], 26 April 2021 (re Pragnell Shakespeare Award).

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