Winston Ntshona, a renowned black South African actor whose performances on Broadway in two short anti-apartheid dramas earned him a Tony Award in 1975 with his co-star, John Kani, but led to their imprisonment the next year, died on Thursday in New Brighton, a township near Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He was 76.
His death was announced by the South African State Theater in Pretoria. His son, Lawula, told the local media that he had been ill for several years.
Mr. Ntshona’s theatrical career was inextricably connected to Mr. Kani’s. Both were factory workers in the mid-1960s when they joined the Serpent Players, a mixed-race troupe that the white playwright Athol Fugard had helped form. South African blacks could not be employed as “artists” at the time, so Mr. Ntshona and Mr. Kani were classified as servants to Mr. Fugard in the identification passbooks that blacks were required to carry.
“South Africa was a strange place,” Mr. Ntshona recalled in an interview with The Globe and Mail in Toronto in 2001. “Everyone was totally oblivious to the need to express the plight of the black people. Everybody wanted to forget there was pain — they just wanted to be entertained.”
Mr. Ntshona (pronounced “in-SHO-na”), Mr. Kani and Mr. Fugard collaborated in the early 1970s on the plays “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead” and “The Island.” (Mr. Fugard directed both.) Mr. Ntshona played the title role in “Sizwe Banzi,” a man so desperate for work that he takes the identity of a dead man whose passbook he finds.
In “The Island,” Mr. Ntshona and Mr. Kani portrayed prisoners on Robben Island, biding their time and rehearsing for a production of “Antigone.”
They performed those roles in London, on Broadway and around the United States and South Africa over 30 years, beginning when apartheid was the official government policy and continuing well after its dissolution, as they reinterpreted the parts and built their stage chemistry.
In “The Island,” an explicit criticism of conditions at Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years, Winston (played by Mr. Ntshona) rebukes his cellmate John (Mr. Kani) when John’s sentence is reduced to 90 days.
“You stink, John,” Winston says in a diatribe that suggests how much he will miss him. “You stink of beer, of company, of freedom … Your freedom stinks, John, and it’s driving me mad.”
“No, Winston!” John responds.
“Yes!,” Winston says. “Don’t deny it. Three months’ time, at this hour, you’ll be wiping beer off your face.”
Allowed to tour, Mr. Ntshona and Mr. Kani performed the plays in repertory on Broadway from 1974 to ’75.
In his review of “The Island,” Douglas Watt of The Daily News wrote that he could not recall “ever having seen a more frank or heart-rending depiction of the steady, everyday attrition of the spirit presented with bold, simple strokes.”
When the two men shared the 1975 Tony Award for best actor in a play — defeating five others, including Henry Fonda and Ben Gazzara — they did not waste time on speeches.
“Thank you very much,” Mr. Ntshona said, to which Mr. Kani added, “Thanks,” before they left the stage of the Winter Garden Theater.
During an interview with The New York Times in 1975, Mr. Ntshona said the success of the plays had had an unintended consequence. “It’s only the outside world that made us realize there is some universality,” he said, “and it took our getting to the so-called free world that some of the problems that affect us so much do affect blacks in the outside world in the so-called pseudodemocratic societies.”
But in 1976, when they were touring South Africa with the two plays, they were arrested and imprisoned for about three weeks after a performance of “Sizwe Banzi” in Butterworth, a town in the South African bantustan of Transkei, one of the nominally independent “homelands” for blacks created by the apartheid government.
News reports at the time said that they had angered Transkei officials with improvised political commentary.
After their release, Mr. Ntshona told The Times: “We will continue working. Things like hassles, being locked up, are second nature to us in our country.”
Winston Zola Ntshona was born on Oct. 6, 1941, in the Eastern Cape province and began acting in high school with Mr. Kani, who later introduced him to the Serpent Players and Mr. Fugard, whose many plays include “ ‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys.”
In addition to his stage work, Mr. Ntsona appeared in the films “The Wild Geese” (1978), “Marigolds in August” (1980) and “A Dry White Season” (1989), among others. He had a small role in a 2008 episode of “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” an HBO series.
“Marigolds” reunited him with Mr. Kani and Mr. Fugard, who wrote the screenplay. In the film, Mr. Ntshona plays a gardener in South Africa whose threats of violence against a man looking for work (Mr. Kani) are averted by a chance meeting with Mr. Fugard’s saintly character.
In an interview with a radio station in South Africa after learning of Mr. Ntshona’s death, Mr. Kani said: “It hurts so much. How should I feel that my twin brother has passed away?”
In addition to his son, Lawula, Mr. Ntshona’s survivors include his wife, Vuyelwa.
Mr. Ntshona remained linked to the roles he originated with Mr. Kani and Mr. Fugard. In 2008, they reprised “Sizwe Banzi” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in what was billed as the last time they would appear in the play.
In his review, Charles Isherwood of The Times said that Mr. Ntshona “makes us notice the fiercely-won dignity underneath Sizwe’s goofy exterior.”
“When Buntu begins his campaign to persuade him to assume a new identity,” he added, “Sizwe clings with quiet tenacious to his own.”
Sizwe asks Buntu, “How do I live as another man’s ghost?”
Two years later, Mr. Ntshona was awarded the National Order of Ikhamanga, given by South Africa to those who have excelled in the arts.
“Indelible in all thespians and enthusiasts’ memory,” the citation read, “is an image of Winston Ntshona and John Kani as they rendered the politically loaded ‘Sizwe Banzi Is Dead’ — directed and performed right under the authorities’ noses.”