Widely regarded as one of South Africa’s finest and distinguished actors, Winston Zola Ntshona made his final bow last Thursday, August 2.
I never met the unassuming but regal Port Elizabeth-born thespian. But ever since I watched A Dry White Season back in the mid-’90s, the film gave me the impression that I knew him personally.
But I actually knew Gordon Ngubene, an ordinary black South African family man who worked as a gardener in a school for whites during apartheid.
His son Jonathan Ngubene had disappeared during a protest march by black kids for a better education system. Like any concerned and loving father, Gordon had decided to look for his sons, but in order for him to succeed in his mission, he has asked Ben du Toit, his white boss, and schoolteacher, to help him find his son.
In this 1989 political thriller based on how the 1976 student uprisings impacted on the lives of two ordinary families – one white and the other black – Ntshona becomes Ngubene, thanks to his powerful portrayal of the distraught parent who was determined to find his son.
The story was so compelling to such an extent that Hollywood heavyweight Marlon Brando reportedly came out of retirement just to get involved in the project.
His performance in the movie earned him an Academy Award nomination for best-supporting actor and received the best actor award at the Tokyo Film Festival. It remains a mystery why Ntshona wasn’t awarded anything for his substantial role in this film.
After all, in 1989 he was already an international actor, having jointly won a Tony Award in 1975 alongside John Kani for his performance in The Island, a political play based on prison conditions on Robben Island. Directed by Athol Fugard, a fellow Port Elizabeth native, The Island debuted at The Space, Cape Town, on July 2, 1973.
It was subsequently staged in London in December of the same year. Its Broadway debut on November 24, 1974, was presented at the same time they performed Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, an unflinching criticism of the pass laws. In an unprecedented move, both actors were named co-winners of the Tony Award for best actor in a play for both productions.
It was a sensible decision by the judges. The pair had performed together since their school days in New Brighton, a township outside Port Elizabeth where they grew up.
After school, they found employment as factory workers before they decided to focus full-time on acting. In the 1960s they joined the Serpent Players, a multiracial theatre company whose other members included Fats Bookholane, Nomhle Nkonyeni, Welcome Duru, Athol Fugard and his wife, Sheila Fugard.
Their initial efforts involved local adaptations of European classics. They eventually abandoned this approach in favour of work-shopped plays based on township stories.
That’s how award-winning classics, The Coat (1966), Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (1972) and The Island were conceived. It could be argued that the on-stage chemistry between Ntshona and Kani was primarily responsible for their notable success although their talents were indisputable.
Theatre and film critics, as well as fellow actors, have maintained that Ntshona was the better of the two although he didn’t enjoy the same level of fame and recognition. He was 76.