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Dr John Kani honoured with Pragnell Shakespeare Award


Veteran actor and playwright adds one more accolade to his list of achievements.

Veteran actor and playwright Dr Bonisile John Kani (honoris causa DLitt 2020) has been awarded the 2021 Pragnell Shakespeare Birthday Award.

Introduced in 1990, the Pragnell Shakespeare Birthday Award is an international award, presented annually, on the occasion of the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations luncheon in Stratford-upon-Avon. Each year, 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.”John Kani photo by RSC

Dr Kani has had a lifetime of interaction with Shakespeare’s work as an actor and playwright. His own play Kunene and the King (2019) deals with the effects of apartheid 25 years into democracy as seen through the lens of King Lear. He wrote the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and performed it at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. It has also been named as one of the 10 best productions put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company to celebrate its 60th anniversary.

Dr Kani said on Twitter: “I am overwhelmed by this honour with pride.” In his acceptance speech he described his introduction 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. “That was unbelievable. It opened my mind to another world, great thoughts, another understanding of the world.”

“Shakespeare has been an integral part of my life…Shakespeare transcends culture, geography, lands, groups and ethnicity…He is a heritage to everybody who walks this earth. Therefore, it is my great honour to accept this prize with incredible humility. It is one of the things that will be a highlight of my life.”

Dr Kani joins an elite group of actors, such as Wits alumna Dame Janet Suzman (BA 1959) who was the recipient of the award in 2012, and Sir Antony Sher in 2017.

Professor Michael Dobson, Director of The Shakespeare Institute, described Dr Kani as “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.”

Dr Kani was nominated for an Olivier Award for his performance in My Children! My Africa!, and won a Tony Award 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 credited with helping to accelerate the end of apartheid. In 2014, the Main Theatre in the city’s Market Theatre, where he performed, was renamed the John Kani Theatre in his honour.

Dr Kani’s extraordinary career has led to countless awards and honours, including honorary doctorates from the universities of Durban-Westville, Rhodes, Cape Town, Nelson Mandela University as well as Wits in 2020. He has also received the Hiroshima Foundation Award for Peace, as well as Fleur du Cap and Naledi lifetime achievement awards (in addition to a Naledi International Impact Award). The Afrikaans community rewarded him with the kykNET lifetime achievement award, and in 2005 he also received a national honour from the South African president – the Order of Ikamanga in Silver – recognising his contribution in the struggle through his work in the arts.

Dr Kani will receive a decorative silver scroll and medallion, handcrafted in Pragnell’s workshop.

See full speech from Pragnell here