Kunene & The King is Dr John Kani’s 3rd play as a solo playwright. In his introduction to Nothing but the Truth (published 2002, Wits University Press), Zakes Mda noted that the play marked Kani’s “debut as a solo playwright”. Kani’s role as playwright goes back to the 1960s, with Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona and others, creating classics such as Sizwe Banzi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973).

Throughout his career as a writer, he has drawn from his own life and incorporated stories of those around him. For instance, the “seed” of his play, Nothing but the Truth, was the 1985 death of Kani’s brother, Xolile (“a poet of the struggle”) who was shot by the police while attending the funeral of a nine year old girl. In a 2003 interview, he told me how Xolile’s funeral drew 10 000 people. It made the evening news in a “frenzy of media attention”. Kani had just returned from Canada after filming Master Harold and the Boys, with Mathew Broderick . The funeral was billed as the “famous John Kani’s brother’s funeral.” Kani started writing a short note to him – “maybe it would be a short story …I wanted to remember him in fondness”. That short story developed into Nothing but the Truth.

Watching Kunene & The King, I wondered about the points of reference from Kani’s own life. I wondered about the landscape of dying: the protracted days of a person who is in a terminal phase and is hanging on until that last breath. There is no further stage after Stage 4. It is the end of the road. The writing and imagery is palpable in the play. To say that it is moving does not cover it.  I cried. I have witnessed people who battled through the terminal stage of illness. It is an ordeal beyond words- for the person who is dying, family and care givers: the pain, meds; the waiting. I knew that Kani, Sher and Honeyman did extensive research in England. They visited a hospice and brought on board Kathryn Mannix as medical consultant. She is a palliative health specialist and author of the book, The End in Mind. Beyond the detail and the mirroring of how an end stage patient presents, the emotion in the play led me to wonder if Kani is drawing from his experiences. He is. His brother died of cancer of the esophagus. “I thought I could sue the tobacco company…” He broke off and said that his uncle in Port Elizabeth, died of liver cancer.  “My uncle explained – you have a life and this disease is going to take you. We all waiting.” Dying was just one of the stories that he wanted to relay on stage – at some point, Kani reflected. “I have a lot of ideas of stories I want to tell. They are like little goggas (insects).”

Another gogga was that Kani wanted to incorporate in Kunene & The King was his love of Shakespeare. We see, Kani’s character Lunga Kunene face off with Sher’s character, Jack Morris as they enact excerpts from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Lunga performs in isiXhosa and relates that he studied the play, at school. during the days of Bantu Education when the play was deemed okay by the Apartheid authorities. They performed WB Mdledle’s Xhosa 1956 translation of Julius Caesar (1956). Kani told me that he performed the isiXhosa translation at school. “I studied my first Shakespeare in IsiXhosa. In 1959 – I did Julius Caesar in isiXhosa at Cowan Secondary School in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth.” He had performed Shakespearean sonnets but that was the first full on Shakespeare he performed. When he subsequently read the play in English, he found that it missed the nuances of the isiXhosa version which was “far more powerful.”

In the course of his career, he became tuned into the “impact of African culture” in Shakespeare’s body of work: Othello, The Tempest – the list goes on. That eventually led him to actively use Shakespeare as “the peacemaker” in Kunene & the King.  “Jack is a Shakespearean actor. Lunga is a fan of Shakespeare. So that was my way to find common ground [between the two]. I wanted an artistic piece not a protest piece.”

As to the choice of placing King Lear as the centre piece in the play, King Lear is a role that Kani has not taken on yet. He has been asked three times to play Lear. Three times, he said no. He would wait until was elderly.

Inserting King Lear in Kunene & the King has become a means of him running through the play; acclimatizing himself to the text – a sort of run through. It is a play which reverberates profoundly within the narrative of an elderly sick man wanting to play the part before he dies but for Kani, the added resonance is that he wants to play King Lear.

It is on his wish list to do an epic scale King Lear.  When can we expect that project to happen? “I am now 75. I think 2021 – could be the year – after we have toured with Kunene & the King. I want to do it well. I want to do the full play. King Lear has 100 knights. I would love to have the stage full of warriors – and then you will see he is power as a Xhosa autocrat I will do it in English. No adaption. But it will be done in Africa- in SA. What would the soldiers will be wearing in SA at the time? It is a challenge for costume and set. In will be in period – but in Africa. My idea is that someone finds a script in a village. What would it say to that person in a remote village in Africa? What will they make out of it? What will say to them?”

Returning to King Lear in Kunene & the King, he consulted extensively with Antony Sher who pointed him to sections in the play which would resonate in Kunene. Working with Sher and Janice Honeyman was a joy. The three have collaborated extensively over the years and are friends as well as colleagues. The gestation of Kunene & The King  goes back to 2009 when Sher, Kani and Honeyman were working together on The Tempest – the co-production between the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Baxter Theatre. Kani asked Sher if he would be interested in doing a two hander with him. The answer was “yes”. Almost ten years went by and Kani asked Sher again – in 2018 – if he remembered the conversation in 2009 – and that he had a script for him to read.

Janice Honeyman as director was able to bring Kani’s vision to stage in Kunene & the King. “She is not political. She is a storyteller. It is always the story.” It’s not about politics or dogmatic posturing. That dovetails with Kani’s approach as an artist. His work is about nation building and ultimately about conciliation. He may have harsh things to say but ultimately it is about finding common ground that we can latch onto and be inspired by to make a better future, as South Africans.

In writing Kunene & the King, it was about John Kani stepping back from the character Lunga Kunene. He quipped that John Kani, would have beat up Jack Morris, from the first scene when he opens his door and gasps at the black man at the door who he perceives as an intruder. But Lunga is not John Kani. Antony Sher is not Jack Morris. Obviously, they bring their experiences of growing up in Apartheid in shaping their fictive characters.

“Kunene & the King has been a joy for me. It was scary for me to premiere the play in SA. It was written for my mense. The majority of critics in the UK gave us five stars. Last night, [the opening at The Fugard] bowled me over. This is why I am a writer. This is why I am an actor. You bring something worthwhile with your talent.”