The Island

The Island Study Guide

Set during South African apartheid, The Island is a play that Athol Fugard co-wrote with two writers and actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, both Black South Africans. The three men met when they were members of a drama group called the Serpent Players, a group started by Fugard. The play premiered in 1974 in Cape Town, South Africa, and then played in London and New York, in repertory with another play by Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona called Sizwe Banzi is Dead.

The play is set in an unnamed prison widely believed to be Robben Island, whose most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, was kept captive there for twenty-seven years. The two protagonists of the play, John and Winston, are prisoners; one has recently successfully appealed his sentence and is soon to be released, while the other has been sentenced for life. As the two of them grapple with the dehumanizing effects of apartheid and imprisonment, they also prepare to perform Sophocles' play Antigone for the other prisoners. Over the course of The Island, we begin to see parallels between Antigone's plight and the plight of the prisoners.

The play was successful in South Africa and soon earned a run in London's West End, premiering at the Royal Court Theater in Haymarket. John Kani and Winston Ntshona starred in the London production, playing their namesake characters. The production on Broadway opened a year later and earned Tony Awards for both Kani and Ntshona.