The two stars of “The Island,” the Tony Award-winning play about political prisoners in South Africa, say the show’s impact endures despite apartheid’s demise in the early 1990s.
John Kani, who starred in the show’s 1975 Broadway debut, says its message still needs to be heard.
“All over the world, there is someone sitting in a cell because he or she is not allowed freedom of expression,” Mr. Kani says during a recent phone interview.
Area audiences can decide for themselves, thanks to a revival of the show at the Kennedy Center. “The Island” runs through Dec. 2 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
“The Island” concerns a pair of political prisoners living out their sentences on Robben Island, a notorious haven for government foes. The duo spend their days locked in lively debates in between rehearsals for a prison production of Sophocles’ “Antigone.” The pair lament their lost freedoms and mourn time missed with loved ones until John (the characters in the play share the first names of the actors) learns his sentence has been shortened, which strains their friendship.
“Twenty-eight years ago we were very angry,” says Mr. Kani, who helped create “The Island” while a member of the Serpent Players, an African theater troupe. “It was a politically potent play. It demanded the release of Nelson Mandela and all the prisoners.”
“The Island” debuted in Cape Town in 1973, garnering rave reviews and the enmity of the South African government. Officials wanted the script burned, but there was no script to set ablaze. The performers had committed their lines to memory as a safeguard.
Danger lurked whenever the play was performed.
“We wanted to call it Robben Island. If we did, we would have followed the men onto Robben Island,” says Winston Ntshona, Mr. Kani’s longtime co-star and collaborator.
The show later moved to Broadway, where it earned its stars a joint Tony Award for best actor in a play, the first such honor in Tony history. It returned to South Africa’s Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1995.
If it were up to Mr. Kani and Mr. Ntshona, they would have retired from their roles two years ago.
In 1999, the duo were approached to perform “The Island” in Paris for a six-week run, after which they thought they would forever put down the material. People in London heard about the show and asked if they would perform it at the Royal National Theatre. They agreed. Then producers in Canada made a similar request, as did Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser. Their current schedule finds them returning to London after the D.C. run to wrap up their tour by April.
“This is final final,” Mr. Kani says, laughing.
For the veteran performers, the chance to revisit a cherished work overshadows a need to move on.
“This play is one of the best pieces that I’ve ever been involved in,” Mr. Ntshona says. “It carries with it a sentimentality that John and myself put it together. We’ve always had a very high respect for this.
“Because of the richness and poignancy of the work we’ve had no jitters to going back. This is our baby. We love it,” Mr. Ntshona says.
“It felt like we were approaching a text that wasn’t our own creation but a jacket we’ve worn before,” Mr. Kani says of his current approach to the material. “Now, it feels much better.”
In the mid-1970s, the drama served as a way to express a country’s suffering.
“At that time, there was no voice to speak for the people. The leadership was [incarcerated]. We were trying to lift the veil over the entire country,” Mr. Ntshona says.
More than two decades have passed since “The Island” first made waves. The duo say they have grown into their roles.
“The longer the relationship is between actors, the better for the piece of work,” Mr. Ntshona says. “The understanding comes into play and then the whole exercise becomes second nature.”
Age also plays a supporting role. While the rigorous demands of their roles may be harder on Mr. Kani, 58, and Mr. Ntshona, 60, than before, their longtime experience also deepens performances.
“We’re 29 years wiser, maturing like good wine, I hope,” Mr. Kani says. “It’s almost like playing it at the age of Nelson Mandela. We understand pain, failure, hope, despair. Now we’ve gone through the decades of changes. It’s added a texture to our work.”
They returned to the roles at the request of friends and fellow drama admirers.
“On the basis of artistry, we could not say no,” Mr. Ntshona says. “We have served that calling. Now, it’s about time we say, ‘Island, sleep in peace.’”
Until then, “The Island” still has plenty to say.
“Now that we’re a free democracy, the work is more poignant and powerful. Now it’s about political tolerance, learning to live together, building a nation and recapturing our history,” Mr. Kani says.
For information about tickets and show times for “The Island,” call the Kennedy Center at 202/467-4600.