Johannesburg – “I was introduced to Shakespeare at the age of 11 in the little dusty town of New Brighton in Port Elizabeth through the isiXhosa translation of Julius Caesar by WB Mdledle,” says veteran South African veteran actor and playwright Dr Bonisile John Kani.
Many decades later, his love for William Shakespeare’s works still burning as bright as it did when he was 11, Kani has been given the 2021 Pragnell Shakespeare Birthday Award for his play, Kunene and the King.
Kunene and the King was performed at the famed Swan Theatre in London, England, which is owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was named as one of the 10 best productions put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
The Pragnell Shakespeare Birthday Award is presented annually on the occasion of the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations luncheon in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was introduced in 1990 and the recipient is chosen by a committee of representatives from The Shakespeare Institute, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The award recognises outstanding achievement in extending the appreciation and enjoyment of the works of William Shakespeare and in the general advancement of Shakespearian knowledge and understanding.
Kani of The Lion King fame has had a lifetime of interaction with Shakespeare’s work as an actor and playwright.
In his acceptance speech he said: “Shakespeare has been an integral part of my life; you find that Shakespeare transcends culture, geography, lands, ethnicity, and groups. He is a heritage to everybody who walks this earth. Therefore, it is my great honour to accept this prize with incredible humility. It will be one of the things that will be a highlight of my life.”
In bagging the honour, Kani joins an elite group including the likes of Witwatersrand University alumna Dame Janet Suzman (2012) and Sir Antony Sher (2017).
Professor Michael Dobson, director of The Shakespeare Institute, said Khani’s works deserved international recognition.
“He is the theatrical equivalent of Nelson Mandela. Not only does he have tremendous gravitas, but he is an accomplished actor on and off screen, who has helped introduce Shakespeare to new audiences around the world,” Dobson said.
Kani was nominated for an Olivier Award for his performance in My Children! My Africa! and won a Tony for his role in the anti-apartheid Broadway plays Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, which he co-wrote. Dr Kani appeared as Othello in Suzman’s 1987 production in Johannesburg, which was hailed as an artistic landmark in the struggle against apartheid.
In 2014, the Main Theatre in Johannesburg’s Market Theatre was renamed the John Kani Theatre. He has also received the Hiroshima Foundation Award for Peace, as well as Fleur du Cap and Naledi Lifetime Achievement Award, among many other honours.Meanwhile, jazz legend Abdulla Ibrahim and Generations: The Legacy creator and executive producer Mfundi Vunda were on Monday conferred with honorary Doctorates in Literature by the University of Pretoria.