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Getting to know Bizos: a play in two acts

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It was a hot December afternoon in 2017 when I entered a driveway on 13th Avenue, Parkhurst, the home of Advocate George Bizos. Finally, I would meet this icon as arranged by his son, Damon, an eminent Johannesburg surgeon who now approached me from the veranda of his father’s rustic-looking home which, I was to learn, George had built with his own two hands about 50 years earlier.

At a table on the veranda, awaiting my arrival, sat Advocate Bizos dressed in khaki shorts and short-sleeved shirt. The welcome was warm and cordial.

After some initial chit-chat, I addressed the reason for my visit. I reminded him that I was the playwright who had called him some weeks earlier and, by way of introduction, provided a summary of previous productions of my work, locally and internationally. I explained that I wished to write a play in the form of a monologue based on his fascinating life. Clearly, however, I needed his blessing and co-operation to go ahead with this project.

Realising that he needed something on which to base his decision, I had written the opening scene amounting to approximately 10 pages which I offered to read to him. Somewhat bemused, he readily agreed and listened intently while I somewhat self-consciously worked my way through the script. Glancing at him now and then, I could tell that he was fully engrossed. Much to my delight, with the completion of the final paragraph, he smiled and said, “You may go ahead. You have my full support.”

What followed was three hours of coffee, cake, and unending anecdotes and reminiscences, many of which were already known to me from his two books, No-one to blame? and Odyssey to Freedom.

One story that he repeated more than once, concerned Cecilia Feinstein, a young Jewish school teacher who entered the store where, at the age of 12, the young George worked behind the counter loading stock onto shelves. He and his father (who was employed on a mine) had arrived in Durban after escaping Nazi-occupied Greece, and had accepted whatever jobs were available in Johannesburg. When Miss Feinstein learned that the young boy’s father had failed to enrol him in a school, she approached the principal of the school at which she taught who readily agreed to George joining her class. Had Miss Feinstein not entered the store and intervened, there was every chance that George Bizos might have fallen by the wayside and never reached his potential as one of South Africa’s leading jurists.

Three months later, with the play now complete, I visited Bizos again. This time, I read him the complete work. At the end, he wept and squeezed my hand through a whispered “Thank you”. Much later, I departed, having spent five inspirational hours in the sole company of a man who exuded integrity, generosity, and humanity. I also took the opportunity to view some exquisite paintings, the work of his late wife, Arethe, who had passed away just months earlier.

George had asked that The Market Theatre produce the play due to his long association with it as a member of the board. However, delay followed delay, and valuable time was lost. Finally, I withdrew from any further negotiations, and offered the play to The Johannesburg Civic Theatre, a mere week prior to the COVID-19 shutdown. At the time, it seemed that my timing couldn’t have been worse.

For almost five months I heard nothing from the artistic director, which, under the circumstances, came as no surprise. However, just a week before Bizos’ death, I received notification that The Civic Theatre planned to stage a rehearsed reading of the play before an invited audience on 16 October as part of its re-launch programme.

Sadly, George won’t be able to view this tribute to his wonderful life but, hopefully, will watch from the heavenly wings and enjoy the incredible legacy he left behind. I, on the other hand, am fully aware of the privilege I was afforded in getting to know him, to some degree, for that short period during which we shared a project unique to us both.

  • Victor Gordon is a playwright and retired businessman.

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