The Sting of Truth

Special Features   The Sting of Truth
John Kani's Nothing But the Truth is a searing look at a people in turmoil in the aftermath of apartheid
John Kani in Nothing But the Truth
John Kani in Nothing But the Truth Photo by Paul Kolnick

When the TRC - post-apartheid South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission - got to New Brighton, the black township just outside Port Elizabeth, Sarah Kani, mother of John Kani, wasn't having any: "My mother said, 'I'm not going. Why should we go? Am I going to get my son back?'"

Sarah Kani's son - "my younger brother, a poet of the struggle" - was shot dead by the police of the apartheid years while reciting a poem at a 1985 New Brighton funeral and mass rally for a nine-year-old girl who'd died after being hit by a tear-gas canister. His name was Xolile. He was 25.

"He died three weeks after our father died," says Xolile's brother. "We never actually mourned for him, never grieved, never had closure on this end."

Now there is closure, of a sort. John Kani's Nothing But the Truth, here at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse after a stirring premiere last year at playwright-director-actor Kani's Market Theatre in Johannesburg, is a tribute to Xolile Kani, but it is also, disturbingly, much more than that.

Its central character, Sipho Makhaya, a man in his sixties (played by Mr. Kani), is the brother who stayed home and quietly worked for 33 years as assistant chief librarian at the for-whites-only Port Elizabeth Public Library. Now that apartheid is no more, he has reason to expect a promotion to chief librarian. There is, of course, the question of his age. Sipho is also a father. Devoted daughter Thando (Warona Seane), a schoolteacher, has lately been volunteering as a translator at local hearings of the TRC, and finds the terrible testimony depressing.

It is the other brother, Themba Makhaya, who was the activist, agitator, the star of the family, and who, self-exiled in England for two decades, has now died; his daughter Mandisa (Esmeralda Bihl), a spunky modern young woman, is bringing his remains back to the uncle and cousin she has never met.

That is the starting point for John Kani to get in his long-pent-up deep feelings that (a) "the TRC, for me, is like putting a huge Band-Aid around the nation that we must now rebuild"; (b) Themba, the agitator, more mouth than muscle, "is like many people I know that shall remain nameless"; and (c) Sipho, the staid librarian, "is like many wonderful South Africans who went to meetings but did not speak - whom we don't remember because we never spoke to them - they never gave us their names. The invisible citizen."

They also serve who only stand and wait.

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