John Kani’s new play re-inscribes and re-imagines White-saviour trope

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The narrative of the White-saviour is one that still has a home in today’s Hollywood productions. Examples of these can be found in Tate Taylor’s ‘The Help’ and Peter Farrelly’s ‘Green Book’ (which won this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture). Even in films that centre on African American lives and experiences, the White-saviour always finds a way to make an appearance. For example, Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) was a completely fictional character that was created for Theodore Melfi’s ‘Hidden Figures’ and Agent Ross plays an important role in the third act battle of Ryan Coogler’s ‘Black Panther’.

John Kani and Antony Sher in Kunene and the King. Photo credit Claude Barnardo
John Kani and Antony Sher in Kunene and the King. Photo credit Claude Barnardo

The job of the White-saviour trope is to make White audience members feel better about themselves. To give them a character that they can identify with who is not overtly racist and violent towards Black people. Someone that can help them say “I don’t understand why all those other White people don’t say or do anything. I could never have just remained silent.” But saying this actually helps them to remain silent about the continued racism of the present because the White-saviour narrative lies to them by making them think that all the work that needs to be done to overcome racism has already been done.

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I first heard about John Kani’s new play, Kunene and the King, from a tweet that said that the Royal Shakespeare Company in London was so impressed by Kani’s script that they invited him and his team to have their world premier at Statford-upon-Avon. I was suspicious that it was another piece of art that appeared to deal with race relations in an honest way while just making White people feel good about their continued racism. I was surprised to find that Kani’s play simultaneously re-inscribes and subverts these tropes.

John Kani and Antony Sher in Kunene and the King. Photo credit Claude Barnardo
John Kani and Antony Sher in Kunene and the King. Photo credit Claude Barnardo

In Kunene and the King, Kani plays Langa Kunene, a retired male nurse who is sent by a home care agency to take care of Jack Morris (Anthony Sher) an actor dying of terminal cancer who has just been offered the role of King Lear in an upcoming production. Both Kani and Sher give incredible performances: Kani’s stage presence is still as electrifying as ever and Sher’s story-telling skills shine.

Janice Honeyman’s direction and Birrie le Roux’s production design are able to draw one into the story and make you believe that you are eaves-dropping on the lives of these two men. However, the conventions of what Jerzy Grotowski calls rich theatre (when theatre tries to recreate the world as we know it like in film and TV) are quite heavy handed. Much of the set and the props are on stage only to help create the room that the characters are in. In its current form, this is not a show that would work in a community hall.

Kani (the writer) walks a very tight rope in his re-imagining and re-inscription of the White-saviour trope. The lack of character change of Kunene serves to reinforce the ideas of these kinds of narratives. These narratives tend to be focused on the character arc and journeys of their White characters, while their Black characters remain largely the same. The Black characters are simply there to help their White counterparts undergo a necessary transformation.

John Kani and Antony Sher in KUNENE AND THE KING. Photo credit: ELLIE KURTTZ.
John Kani and Antony Sher in KUNENE AND THE KING. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.

Kunene is written (and played) as strong and stoic with the ability to forgive Morris’ disrespect and disregard of him. Even when Morris throws a pair of his soiled underpants in his face, he still stays and helps this man who has clearly pushed away everyone who has ever loved him. This naturalised idea of Black people’s ability to forgive is brought up later on in the show when Morris laments the “goodness of these [Black] people” after his first taxi ride to Soweto.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this show was the way that Kani and his team show us Morris’ subtle racism and micro-aggressions. Like many White people, Morris does not see himself or his actions as being harmful towards Black people. It reminds one of the ignorance that many White people claimed (and continue to claim) of the crimes against humanity that were committed during Apartheid.

Kani says that he has written this play for all South Africans as a way for us to look back on our first twenty-five years of democracy. But the show seems to be addressing White audience members in the way it is written and staged.

Kunene and the King is showing at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town until 25 May 2019.

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