By James Bartholomew
When Franz Kafka first wrote “A Report to an Academy” in 1917, he likely didn’t expect it would ever be performed on stage. He certainly couldn’t imagine a performer like Bonani Miyambo. Physical, sympathetic and occasionally grotesque, Mr. Miyambo’s reimagining of the short story in “Kafka’s Ape” heightens its inherent theatricality and teases out its complex knot of race and identity.
Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” is just that ‑ a lecture delivered to an unnamed institution by its central character, Red Peter. However, Peter is an ape. After being captured in present‑day Ghana, Peter has learned to imitate human behavior and speech, and now stands before his audience to report on his bizarre journey and his experiences with humanity. Despite his unchanged appearance, Peter sees his “apishness” as a distant identity long since overcome. He now views himself as a successful and contributing member of society, and is ready to tell his life story for the benefit of the academy.
Adapted by director Phala O. Phala, “Kafka’s Ape” sees Mr. Miyambo in the role of Red Peter, with the audience standing in for the nameless academy. And while an academic lecture may seem to make for a dry dramatic script, Mr. Miyambo breathes vibrant life into the role. Peter snorts and snarls as he limps around the stage with his hunched back. Those apelike mannerisms come in direct contrast to the eloquent report that Peter delivers. When recounting the darker parts of his journey, Peter sometimes becomes so distraught that he flings himself from his podium to hide away while he composes himself.
Beyond those persistent, tragic ironies, “Kafka’s Ape” allows for sporadic moments of humor. Mr. Miyambo breaks up his report with short audience interactions that add much‑needed levity and a momentary respite from the weighty script. While describing how he learned to shake hands, Mr. Miyambo grabbed the leg of a man in the front row, shaking it proudly and unaware of his mistake. He was later distracted by another audience member, whose head he could not help but examine for a tasty insect snack.
Of course, funny as they are, those jokes compound the tragedy at play. Mr. Miyambo’s physicality brilliantly underscores the central irony of Kafka’s text. Namely, Red Peter was already a fully intelligent and rational being before his capture by humans, and his attempts to imitate humanity have only dehumanized him. Mr. Miyambo’s Peter is clearly traumatized by the atrocities done to him in captivity. He repeatedly says that his only motivation to change was “a way out” of the horrific conditions he was subjected to. But even now, having presumably found some measure of human acceptance, he is so mortified by his past self that he is unable to engage with his fellow apes in a meaningful way. That subtext is inherent to the original short story, but in “Kafka’s Ape,” the theme of societally driven self‑hatred takes center stage. In its own promotional material, “Kafka’s Ape” is described as “highlighting the complexities of identity in post‑apartheid South Africa,” and the critique offered is one of the play’s greatest successes.
Although its script is over a century old, “Kafka’s Ape” is a production all its own. Thanks to the inspired directing of Phala O. Phala and the transformative performance of Bonani Miyambo, “Kafka’s Ape” elevates its simple report into an essential piece of theatre. Not enough can be said of Mr. Miyambo, who balances Kafka’s delicate prose with explosive athleticism. On a technical level, “Kafka’s Ape” is a battle of endurance for any actor. That Mr. Miyambo can keep up with the demands of the production while portraying Red Peter with such an intricate mix of sympathy and horror is an amazing feat. Strange, entrancing and provocative, “Kafka’s Ape” is solo performance at its finest.
Performed by Bonani Miyambo
Directed by Phala O. Phala
November 22 at 7:30 PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.