Winston Ntshona, the award-winning South African theatre legend, died last week at the age of 76.
His family confirms that he has been ill for about eight years.
His life, however, should be a celebrated one. Not only is he a two-time Tony award-winning actor and playwright, he was a fearless social activist.
Ntshona’s (pronounced “in-SHO-na”) amazing body of work is not only beautiful and intelligent but political. His play The Island, which chronicles the story of two cellmates at Robben Island; its an explicit criticism of Nelson Mandela’s 27-year sentence.
During a 1975 New York Times interview, Ntshona expressed that the play’s popularity was quite a surprise :
“It’s only the outside world that made us realize there is some universality. It took our getting to the so-called free world that some of the problems that affect us so much do affect blacks in the outside world in the so-called pseudodemocratic societies.”
The Island and another play entitled Sizwe Banzi is Dead, which focuses on South Africa’s discriminatory ‘pass laws” earned Ntshona and his creative partner John Kani two Tonys in 1975. Their anti-apartheid message also landed them in prison for a short period.
In 1976, the two artists were arrested in Butterworth, South Africa following a performance of Sizwe Banzi and remained in jail for about three weeks.
Following their release, Ntshona made it clear that nothing would hinder their work:
“We will continue working. Things like hassles, being locked up, are second nature to us in our country.”
The collaborators performed their roles in London, on Broadway, throughout the United States and South Africa for over three decades. Starting when apartheid was was the official government policy, their performances continued following the post-apartheid era.
Speaking with The Globe and Mail in 2001 Ntshona explains why sharing his experiences in his art was so important:
“When we started our involvement in local theatre, it was just entertainment. South Africa was a strange place. Everyone was totally oblivious to the need to express the plight of the black people. Everybody wanted to forget there was pain—they just wanted to be entertained. This worried us, and when the time was ripe, one picked up the responsibility to do something about one’s life.”
Reactions To His Death:
Kani said during an interview at a South African radio station that “It hurts so much,” and “How should I feel that my twin brother has passed away?”
South African playwright Athol Fugard says that he is mourning the loss of his “dearly-beloved brother”. A statement from Fugard reads: “With the passing of beautiful Winston, I have lost a dearly-beloved brother. A big tree has fallen in the forest. Fortunately for us survivors, there are young ones now growing taller.”
Xoliswa Tom, the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture, has shared her thoughts on the passing of the legendary playwright and actor
“The creative industry is poorer today without Mr. Ntshona who raised the country’s flag high on the global stage,” says Tom, “He left an indelible mark on the industry and will be remembered for his excellent work, including raising awareness on the injustices in South Africa during the dark days of apartheid.”
Fans took to Twitter to express their sadness and gratitude.
— Zanele Madiba (@MissMadiba) August 2, 2018
— Taku (@Musarinya) August 2, 2018
We are truly saddened by the passing of South African theatre legend Dr #WinstonNtshona. A master of his craft and a pioneer. He & our patron, @JohnKani2 were co-winners of the Tony Award for Best Actor on Broadway in a play for their performance in Sizwe Banzi is Dead pic.twitter.com/u1enNOJSFR
— Naledi Awards (@NalediAwardsSA) August 2, 2018