Johannesburg, South Africa — You don't need to know much about apartheid-era South Africa to feel for a man like Sipho. Abandoned by the wife he loves, he works hard, raises his children and tries to shield them as his black township is swept into the movement against apartheid.
Sipho does all this under the shadow of his brother, a dashing anti-apartheid activist who marches at the head of every protest, is irresistible to the wives and girlfriends of his "comrades" and who flees to glamorous exile in London with a foreign wife who works for Amnesty International.
Even Sipho's own son worships his father's celebrity brother, though when the boy tries to emulate his uncle by joining a student uprising, he is shot dead by police.
These are the fault lines of the classic fraternal rivalry that fuels "Nothing but the Truth," a taut drama written by South African actor John Kani -- he also portrays Sipho -- whose exploration of post-apartheid tensions goes far beyond black and white. It is Kani himself who is the astonishing force behind Sipho, the South African Everyman who marches forward with the rank-and-file of history, while his brother becomes a political elite.
Sipho's brother never comes back to South Africa, not even when their father dies, though he turns the funeral into a hideous political spectacle. And he doesn't return when sainted political prisoner Nelson Mandela is released in 1990 or when he becomes South Africa's first black president in 1994.
Finally, the brother's cremated ashes do return, brought by Sipho's niece, a mod Londoner with platform shoes who lectures her South African relatives on their country's political transition but can't seem to pronounce their African names. While the family argues over whether the government should find and punish white torturers and killers, they unravel a wounding sexual secret that must be reckoned with. As they stumble closer to this toxic truth, it's hard to brace for the next line: It might be hilarious, or painful enough to bring tears to your eyes.
Imprisoned and stabbed
Perhaps it's no surprise that the play that is bringing down the house in Johannesburg was created by Kani, a Tony Award-winning stage veteran whose numerous film roles include "A Dry White Season" and "Sarafina!" Kani was once harassed, hounded, imprisoned and even stabbed by thugs sent by the apartheid government. Now Kani is chairman of the National Arts Council and director of the downtown Market Theater, where the play is staged.
Reviewers have called "Nothing but the Truth" one of the most significant dramas of the post-apartheid era. A columnist for South Africa's Sunday Times said she was "awestruck by the depth of storytelling." Mandela called the play "a powerful drama, very political, but in a subtle way."
The Market Theater once showcased the anti-apartheid theatrical outrage of Athol Fugard, the country's best-known playwright. Kani and another actor, Winston Ntshona, co-wrote two works with Fugard, "The Island" and "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead," and went on to share the Tony for best actor in 1975. Under Kani, the Market is hosting a new wave of playwrights whose work sorts through the fallout of the new South Africa.
"I now say I'm no longer a victim. I'm a member of the ruling class," said Kani, 59, emerging from backstage after a two-hour performance and taking a seat, dressed in jeans, in the silent, empty theater.
Kani drew on a mix of feelings familiar to many South Africans when he created Sipho, "the ordinary township man who never did anything spectacular, but was always one of the faceless people in the crowd. I wanted to pull one of those faces out of the crowd. I wrote to pay tribute to all those unsung heroes."
But Kani also wanted to send a message to South Africa's fledging democratic government: "Don't forget the little people."
"These are people who want to see what their vote meant," he said. "People ask themselves, what does this democracy mean, when I'm still in a township with no money and no job. Who have waited and waited and want it now. I wanted to say, 'Speed up delivery, lest they lose hope.' "
Like Sipho, Kani grew up in a township in Port Elizabeth. As a teenager, he joined a small local theater group whose members were all black -- except for one young white man: Fugard. Kani, who saw whites as the enemy, was shocked.
"I couldn't believe these black actors were working with a white person," he recalled. "That opened my eyes to the fact that not every white person was the enemy. I told him, 'Athol, you messed with my revolution.' "
Thus began an intensely creative partnership. Kani collaborated with Fugard and Ntshona in "The Island" and "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead," in which Kani portrayed a man on whom apartheid has taken a harsh toll.