John Kani

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John Bonisile Kani (1943-) [1]. Actor, director, playwright and theatre administrator.



He was born in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth on 30 August 1943. One source gives his date of birth as 30 November 1942.

Training and Career

Worked with Athol Fugard since 1965 when he joined the Serpent Players with Winston Ntshona. Since 1973 he has worked as a professional 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.

As actor

Kani continued as actor to become a sought after leading actor in the 1980s, often participating in controversial anti-apartheid work such as the local version of Master Harold and the boys (Fugard, Market Theatre, 1983).

He starred in Bobby Heaney’s production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie together with Sandra Prinsloo as Miss Julie and Kani as Jean. It originated at the Baxter and went to the Market in February 1985. 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 has worked with Fugard 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, The Grass is Singing, Marigolds in August, Victims of Apartheid, An American Dream, A Dry White Season, Sarafina, Saturday Night at the Palace and a number of international movies. The Wild Geese (1977); The Grass is Singing; Marigolds in August; Victims of Apartheid; An African Dream; Option; A Dry White Season; Saturday Night at the Palace (Won a Taormina Golden Award at the Milan International Festival); Sarafina (movie).

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 Artistic Director of the Market Theatre after the death of Barney Simon He went on from there to become a member of the board of trustees and to play a prominent part on the boards of PACT, the National Arts Council, the Grahamstown Arts Festival, the Apartheid Museum and similar forums. Executive director of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg until 2003. Kani is (was?) a Trustee and Associate Artistic Director of the Market Theatre Foundation as well as Director of the Market Theatre Laboratory.

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 [2] 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 [3].


Tucker, 1997.

Playland programme notes, 1992.

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

The Star, 15 February 2005.

Numerous entries in the NELM catalogue.

For more information

IMDb [4].

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