John Kani pulls out of Fences at the last minute

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Veteran actor John Kani had to pull out of the US classic stage play called Fences, which was supposed to open at the Joburg Theatre on February 2. Photo: Rosetta Msimango/City Press
Veteran actor John Kani had to pull out of the US classic stage play called Fences, which was supposed to open at the Joburg Theatre on February 2. Photo: Rosetta Msimango/City Press

The theatrical world on Tuesday woke up to the news that veteran actor John Kani will no longer appear as the lead in the long-awaited and first South African performance of the classic US stage play Fences.

This was after Kani fell ill and had to pull out of the production, which was supposed to open at the Joburg Theatre on February 2. The opening night has since been postponed indefinitely while the theatre gets Kani’s understudy ready to step into the veteran thespian's enormous shoes.

James Ngcobo, the artistic director of Joburg Theatre, today confirmed that Kani will no longer appear in the play.

Kani, 79, was to have played the role of Troy, a patriarch, in a story set in Pittsburgh in the US in the 1950s. Ngcobo today told City Press that Kani’s role will now be played by Tumisho Masha. Kani’s son, Atandwa, will stay on as Troy’s son Cory in the play.

Told of Kani's pulling out of the long-awaited performance, celebrated actor and director Sello Maake kaNcube said: "Sad news indeed. I was looking forward to his interpretation of Troy (a reference to the main character). The whole country in the acting fraternity has got no one else but him (Kani) to look up to from his generation."

John Kani himself confirmed how sad he was at the fact that he would no longer be part of the production. In a statement he said: "It is with great sadness that I have to announce that I will be stepping down from the role of Troy Maxon in August Wilson's Fences...I am quite sure that I shall recover from this temporary medical condition and be back at work again soon."

READ: Celebrating cultural warriors who are raising the South African flag high

Written by August Wilson, a winner of many awards, including the coveted Pulitzer Prize, Fences explores the experience of one black family living in the era of segregation and a burgeoning black rights movement.

Through the interaction of Troy and his son Cory and his wife Rose, the audience gets exposed to the dynamics of a typical working-class black family.

The fence, which Troy gradually builds in front of his house, serves as a metaphor for segregation, as well as the general psychological need to build a fortress where a black ‘inside’ or interior can set itself off from the white-dominated world around it.

The physical fence in the story also becomes the point of conflict between Troy and his son. Taken at a figurative level, father and son grapple over the need to keep building and protecting the fence.

While the son wants to play professional football, his father does all he can to discourage him – arguing that there is a ceiling for black men venturing into that space. He should leave it alone, leave it to white people.

A fight ensues.  Throughout the play, we also see how its characters are forced to define their world in terms of how it’s limited by a racist system of white social and economic power. There are striking parallels between what happened to black people in America, and what fellow black people had to endure under the yoke of apartheid.

Fences was originally performed in 1985, featuring James Earl Jones as Troy and Courtney B. Vance playing his son Cory. Fences was recently brought back into the limelight after Denzel Washington made it into a critically rated 2016 movie featuring a bravura performance by Viola Davis, who is the wife of Washington’s character in the story. Davis won an Oscar for best supporting actress. 

READ: When August Wilson Insisted on a Black Director for a Hollywood Adaptation of 'Fences'...

Washington not only played the lead role, but he also produced and directed the movie. It was a commercial success, grossing $64 million against a $24 million production budget.

Other members of the cast due to appear in Fences at the Joburg Theatre are Khutjo Green, Hlomla Dandala, and Sbusiso Mamba. 

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