The play was first performed in Cape Town, at a theatre called The Space, in July 1973. In order to evade the draconian censorship in South Africa at the time (plays dealing with prison conditions, etc., were prohibited), the play premiered under the title, Die Hodoshe Span. It was next staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London, with John Kani and Winston Ntshona portraying John and Winston respectively. The Broadway production, presented in repertory with Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, opened on November 24, 1974 at the Edison Theatre, where it ran for 52 performances.
In an unusual move, Kani and Ntshona were named co-Tony Award nominees (and eventual co-winners) for Best Actor in a Play for both The Island and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead.
Over the next thirty years, Kani and Ntshona periodically performed in productions of the play. Notable among them were the Royal National Theatre in 2000 , reported at the time as their final production, although they went on to star at the Old Vic in 2002  and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2004 .