Bonisile John Kani was born on 30 August 1943 in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. He matriculated from Newell High School where he performed in numerous school plays with Winston Ntshona.
Very soon after finishing high school he began working with various drama groups in the New Brighton area performing in schools and community halls. In 1965 while working at the Ford Motor Company in Port Elizabeth Kani became a member of the Serpent Players drama group. It was here that he met Athol Fugard. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship. Much of the work they did at the time was experimental and improvisational but it did result in a number of published and unpublished works. One of the plays that emerged in 1972 was Sizwe Bansi is Dead, a collaboration between Kani, Fugard and Winston Ntshona. This was followed by The Island in 1973. Sizwe Banzi is Dead addresses the apartheid regime’s restrictive pass laws while The Island is inspired by a true story and is set in an unnamed prison. The plays were widely performed in South African and internationally.
In 1974 Kani and Winston went on tour with Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island. In New York Kani achieved international recognition when he and Ntshona were awarded a Tony for best actor for both plays. Along with performing the plays, Kani and Ntshona conducted workshops in New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles. In New York the two plays ran for 52 performances at the Edison Theatre on Broadway. In 1976 Kani toured in Australia and worked with Aboriginal community groups in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. During this time Kani was also nominated for his role in My Children My Africa!
On his return to South African from touring overseas, Kani began to tour rural areas of the country with Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island and conducted drama groups where ever the plays were performed. During this time Kani and Ntshona were arrested and detained. Kani was detained for 23 days. They were released after mass demonstrations with this experience marking the beginning of a painful relationship with the South African police.
In 1977 Kani began collaborating with Barney Simon and became involved with the new Market Theatre in Johannesburg. Kani’s performance in Miss Julie in Cape Town in 1982 was the most controversial of his career. During the play, Kani kissed a White woman on stage which resulted in half the audience walking out. As a result of this act, Kani received in numerous death threats and an assassination attempt during which he was stabbed 11 times. In 1985 Kani’s brother was killed by police while he was reciting a poem at the funeral of a young girl killed during riots.
Kani was given a merit award from the Southern Transvaal Chamber of Commerce in 1987 for his contribution for liberation through culture. In 1989/1990 Kani and Barney Simon established the Market Theatre Laboratory which provides training to young people who are unable to acquire theatrical skills because of a poor educational background or lack of funds. Today the Lab runs outreach and community training programmes and stages community festivals.
In 2002 Kani’s first debut as a sole playwright was performed at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg. The play is set in post-apartheid South Africa and deals with the rift between Black South Africans who stayed in the country and those who went into exile. The play is a tribute to his brother. In 2003 the play received the 2003 Fleur du Cap Award for best actor, best indigenous script and best new South African play. The play also won five Naledi Theatre Awards. In the same year Kani received a special Obie award for his contribution to theatre in the USA. Nothing but the Truth had successful runs in South Africa and in Los Angeles, Boston, Sydney and New York. In 2008 the play was turned into a feature film.
Kani was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Durban-Westerville, the ‘Hiroshima Award for Peace’ (in 2000) and the Tribute Magazine’s ‘Titan of the Century’ award. In 2005 he received the Olive Schreiner Prize and on 27 September 2005 Kani was awarded the The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver by the South African Government for “Excellent contributions to theatre and, through this, the struggle for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa”. In 2006 Kani was bestowed with an honorary doctorate by the University of Cape Town. Kani was honoured with a South African Film and Television Lifetime Achievement Award on 20 February 2010.
Kani is currently an executive trustee of the Market Theatre Foundation, director of the Market Theatre Laboratory and chairman of the National Arts Council of South Africa. He is currently starring as Mkhuseli Mthetho in the Mzansi Magic telenovela Inkaba between 2012 and 2013, which Kani also created. Kani is also Chair of the Apartheid Museum Board of Trustees.
He gained international fame after appearing as King T'Chaka in the Marvel Cinematic Universe film “Captain America: Civil War” and its sequel “Black Panther.”