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Winston Ntshona, the South African actor and playwright who won a Tony Award and had a pivotal role in the 1989 apartheid film drama A Dry White Season, has died. He was 76.
Ntshona died Thursday morning in New Brighton, South Africa, a spokesperson from The South African State Theater told The Hollywood Reporter. No cause of death was given.
“With the passing of beautiful Winston, I have lost a dearly beloved brother,” playwright Athol Fugard said in a statement. “A big tree has fallen in the forest. Fortunately for us survivors, there are young ones now growing taller.”
Ntshona’s film career includes roles in Andrew V. McLaglen’s The Wild Geese (1978); John Irvin’s The Dogs of War (1980); Marigolds in August (1980), in which he co-stars with Fugard; and the Disney comedy The Air Up There (1994).
In A Dry White Season (1989), Ntshona was memorable as the gardener, Gordon, whose son is beaten by white policemen during a protest. “I’m not worried about those wounds, I’ll know they’ll get better,” he tells the schoolteacher portrayed by Donald Sutherland. “It’s the wounds here (pointing to his heart) that I worry about.” Gordon is later detained and roughed up by the police.
In a statement to THR, A Dry White Season director Euzhan Palcy said that Ntshona was not “acting” in her film. “He was Gordon Ngubene, Mister Ben’s gardener in the film. That fellow was simply him, like he was simply that fellow,” she said.
“This was the gift Winston and all the other black South African actors gave to my film. But more than that, he gave a voice onscreen to all those other black fellows like him who had been silenced by the monster that was apartheid.
“He was brave and fearless. He knew what he was doing. I remember on a day of shooting [Sutherland as Ben] playing against Winston. Winston was so ‘real’ and Donald got so emotional that I had to stop the shooting.”
Ntshona’s screen debut came as the captive political figure whom Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris and Hardy Kruger attempt to rescue in the British adventure The Wild Geese.
He portrayed another political prisoner, this time an empathetic doctor, in The Dogs of War, an adaptation of a Frederick Forsyth novel.
Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on Oct. 6, 1941, Ntshona studied at Newell High School, where he performed in productions with John Kani.
He joined the Serpent Players drama group in 1967, and he and Kani collaborated with Fugard (Tsotsi) in the plays Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island. They were presented in repertory on Broadway in 1974 and ’75.
Sizwe Banzi Is Dead focused on the grievous “Pass Laws” that restricted movements of Africans under apartheid; The Island centered on two Robben Island cellmates who stage a production of Antigone.
In a rare move, Ntshona and Kani were honored with the 1975 Tony Award for best actor in a play for both productions. Their acceptance speeches were simply “Thank you very much” and “Thanks.”
“The New York Times the following day called that [moment] the most powerful political statement made by two actors from the Republic of South Africa — [a country where] they are not even recognized as actors,” Kani recalled in 2015.
The actors were briefly arrested the following year after a performance of the plays in South Africa.
Ntshona also appeared in Ashanti (1979), Gandhi (1982), The Power of One (1992) and Tarzan and the Lost City (1998).
“Somebody once asked, ‘How do you go through your life in South Africa?’ ” Ntshona said in a 2001 interview. “At that time, it was at the height of the apartheid system, there was social oppression. I said, ‘One must understand that what is called art is life, and conversely what is life is art.”
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