Fitting tribute paid to three greats of SA theatre, writes Siyamtanda Capa
The often difficult paths trodden by Port Elizabeth theatre legends John Kani, Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona, who brought the world iconic protest theatre, were finally paved with honour and glory on Friday.
Streets in the arts precinct of Central received a fitting change when they were renamed after the theatre greats.
The renaming ceremony at the corner of former Belmont Terrace and Whites Road saw Kani – flanked by his wife Mandisa – with representatives of Ntshona and Fugard, unveil the new John Kani and Athol Fugard roads.
Chapel Street will also change to Winston Ntshona Street.
As the Serpent Players drama group, the trio worked together on two iconic plays – Sizwe Banzi is Dead in 1972 and The Island in 1973.
Ntshona and Kani went on to win Tony awards for best actor for both plays while the names of all three have become synonymous with a phenomenal theatre legacy in South Africa.
A visibly moved Kani said having a street named after him was a great honour. “It started about 74 years ago when I was born and my father came to the native affairs office to register me – a new son – and my birth certificate read ‘born in Port Elizabeth’, not township or village.
“I have held on to that right of citizenship my whole life – my whole struggle is about the dignity of being recognised in this country as a citizen, and today the circles come around back to PE.”
Kani said he considered being recognised in his home town as an honour for his family and generations to come. “It makes me proud that someone will have a story to tell and that it happens in my own town.”
Nearly 50 family members and residents attended the event, which attracted the attention of passers-by.
Ntshona could not attend the event as he was not well, while Fugard is lecturing abroad. Ntshona’s wife Vuyelwa was accompanied by nine family members, some having travelled from King William’s Town.
Fugard’s theatre colleague and friend, Marlene Pieterse, read a message from him. “To have Belmont Terrace named after me is a great honour. It is indeed a street I remember clearly as I walked there many times in my childhood and early manhood.
“Port Elizabeth was the cradle of all my early and defining work – the debt I owe to it is one that I can happily say I cannot repay. All the more so because I owe it to my friendship with Winston and John and the work we created together,” Pieterse read.
Scriptwriter and Opera House general manager Monde Ngonyama said the street renaming had been in the pipeline since 2012.
He said changing the environment and infrastructure was part of art advocacy and changing misunderstandings. “Buses and cars drive very slowly up [former] Whites Road – for us to have a black man’s name that is not political and has an impact on many people . . . people who walk up and down to and from work, this name will have a big impact on them.
“The intention was to contribute towards the Opera House’s arts advocacy strategy and that is why we emphasise that around a theatre we should have names that represent theatre personalities.”
Mayor Athol Trollip said renaming the streets was about remembering all three men while they were still alive.
“We are not just changing mere names of streets but those of symbols that depict our colonial and apartheid past that characterises the exclusion of the majority of the population,” he said. “We are engaged in redress and transformation.
“This is a very momentous day that grants us the rare opportunity to honour, salute and pay tribute to iconic servants of South Africa and in particular Nelson Mandela Bay.”
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