John Kani reads his essay Breakfast with Othello

Thursday 5 may 2016

John Kani shares new insights into his relationship with Shakespeare and the impact of the Bard on his life. 

John Kani played Othello, directed by Janet Suzman in 1987, seven years before Apartheid ended in South Africa. 

“It has been an incredible journey for me to be born in South Africa and to grow up and work in this country”, said Kani today. “We are talking about a playwright who we first had an aversion to because of the way Shakespeare sounds, it’s so very close to the King James Bible which was used to colonise the native”, Kani went on to explain. 

Kani iterated the need for relevant art in South Africa during that time “to speak about us and our lives. Mandela was still in prison at that time, the struggle was still bitter.” Kani recalls the tense atmosphere during rehearsals for Othello. “Even the white actors thought the director was being unnecessarily controversial by casting a black actor as Othello,” said Kani. 

Some thought that the love scenes between the young white actress, Joanna Weinberg who played Desdamona, and Kani were too intense. After the play, Weinberg was marginalised from mainstream media. She now lives in Australia.

After the play had opened to the public, two white policemen met Kani at his home in Soweto to interrogate him about the play. “I didn’t want to blame the theatre management for choosing the play – I told them there comes a time in every actor’s life they have to do the classics”, said Kani. When the policeman told Kani that all the love and passionate kissing disgusted the white audience and this direction is not indicated in Shakespeare’s play, Kani realised the policeman had read the play! “That was the moment that I realised the power of the arts and theatre to change society,” said Kani. 

Talking about the relevance of Shakespeare being translated into indigenous African languages, Kani says, “English doesn’t explain the idiom of our African story or the African experience. Today there is a blending, a massive drive to create a non-racial society…We cannot take racism out of you, it’s your responsibility.” 

Kani impressed upon the audience of higher education leaders that “It is our duty to embrace the true message of Shakespeare: We are all human.” Kani closed the session by saying, “We had better do more Shakespeare. The world needs him now!”

The session was part of Shakespeare Lives, an unprecedented global programme of events and activities celebrating William Shakespeare’s work on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016.