Happy 80th birthday to actor, author, director and a legend of theatre Dr John

It’s been ten years since John Kani and Antony Sher last appeared together at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and now the pair are together on stage again in Kunene and the King, which has recently opened in the Swan Theatre.

Kunene and the King marks 25 years since the first post-apartheid democratic elections in South Africa, and reflects on a quarter century of change in this country. Did you know that, as well as performing in it, John Kani also wrote this two-hander production?

To celebrate John’s return to the RSC, we wanted to share some amazing facts about the award-winning playwright, actor and activist.




John’s work on both Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island in the 1970s saw him win a Tony Award for Best Actor, and a Tony nomination for best play, alongside his friend, the late Winston Ntshona.

Both plays premiered in South Africa (1972/73) before transferring to the Royal Court in London a year later. After a critically acclaimed run, they then transferred to the Ambassadors, before winning The London Theatre Critics Award. The shows then arrived on Broadway, at the Edison Theatre, to critical acclaim, with John and Winston co-winning the Tony Award for Best Actor.

In the live action version of the Disney classic coming out this year, John voices Rafiki, whose name means “friend” in Swahili, and is the wise old mandrill who iconically presents Simba above Pride Rock at the beginning of the film.


“You’re a good man with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king” – King T’Chaka

You may have seen John in the role of King T’Chaka in Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) and in Captain America: Civil War (2016). T’Chaka is the father to T’Challa – aka Black Panther – and was formerly the King of Wakanda. He is also not the only member of the Kani family to appear in the Marvel franchise. The actor playing the younger version of King T’Chaka is actually John’s son, Atandwa Kani.

John also played an integral role in advising on the accurate use of Xhosa* in the film.

*Xhosa is an Nguni Bantu language with click consonants and is one of the official languages of South Africa


The last time John Kani was at the RSC was the same year Matt Smith was named as the new Doctor Who, Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United, and an airliner landed safely on the Hudson River in New York.

John last appeared in Janice Honeyman’s The Tempest in 2009 as Caliban, with Antony Sher playing the role of Prospero alongside him. 10 years on from their last RSC show together, Janice, Antony and John have now reunited for Kunene and the King.

Before this he was also in Hamlet during the 2006 Complete Works Festival – a production which was directed by fellow South African Janet Suzman and provided a vivid reflection of South Africa as the Rainbow Nation.