South Africa

THEATRE

Gibson Kente, or the unexpected virtue of resilience

Gibson Kente, or the unexpected virtue of resilience
The Gibson Kente Musical Tribute . Photo: Supplied

His was an unexpected spark in a long, heavy darkness. Playwright and composer Gibson Kente was a brilliant and complicated figure, who led in the arts at a time when black people were expected to be silent and stoic in their pain.

As a Millennial, one of the hardest things to dobesides suffering through an hour with a low battery on one of your devices – is looking into the face of an elder and telling them you don’t recognise the name of the famous person they are talking about. Especially if this person made an indelible impact during apartheid.

And then seeing a change in their face as a deep sadness sets in. “The education system in this country!” they let out a heavy sigh. Their excited look turns downcast as they realise the youth today don’t know where they came from. The all-too-familiar phrase follows: “You are a lost generation.” It is a bitter pill to swallow – and often true.

I have never felt more lost as a young South African than at The Gibson Kente Musical Tribute organised by the Market Theatre. I sat in the lavish John Kani auditorium and listened to this exquisite musical. It dawned on me that not only did I not know who this great man was, I was mourning the rich history of my country – even though I am its heir.

I was transfixed by the quality of the work. Stunned, held at the edge of my seat, I heard carefully constructed melodies; spectacular instrumentals and painstakingly constructed lyrics. Some of the songs had an odd sense of familiarity, evoking memories of childhood I believed were long forgotten.

The project incorporates selected acts from Kente’s famous plays, mixed with some of his more popular music. I could hum the beat here and there but could not place the songs, which were locked away somewhere at the back of my mind, just beyond reach. How do I not know about this guy, I thought to myself. What a great loss to my generation.

Later I learned that Kente is known as the Father of Black Theatre. I love theatre I should know this. Why don’t I know this? Furthermore, I was shocked to find out he is also responsible for the training and success of other artists such as Brenda Fassie, Nomsa Nene and Mbongeni Ngema.

So I did a little digging. The story goes: In 1959, Kente dropped out of his course at the Jan H. Hofmeyer School of Social Work. He joined the Union of South African Artists, a group that offered training to black artists, as well as legal assistance with contracts and royalties.

After the success of his two plays, Manana, The Jazz Prophet and Sikalo, he started his own training company GK production, in his own garage at Pieener street in Dube, Soweto.

His plays were seen as something different because he used township popular culture, a mix of home languages, dance and fashion. They drew attention because they were new and relatable, tackling alcoholism, petty crime and domestic abuse.

Kente’s work reflected township life and creatively articulated the fears, hopes, joys and tribulation of township communities. His work was both personal and political. It resonated with the spirit of resistance, a quest for social justice and a determination to build a better South Africa, through the creative and performing arts,” explains Ismail Mahomed, CEO at the Market Theatre Foundation.

While doing the research on the project,” says artistic director Makhaola Ndebele, “it became clear quite quickly that I was engaged with the life and work of a South African who is greatly revered among theatre goers, critics, and artists.

Later in his career, Kente became more serious. He wrote on the social ills and the politics of the age: that is, the apartheid era. Three of his plays were banned by the state because of their content: How Long, I Believe and Too Late.

In 1976, Kente was arrested after making a film of one of his banned plays, How Long. He was detained for a year. The film was never released. The National Film Board still holds the negative to the film in The National Film and Video Archives in Pretoria.

Kente is said to have written over 23 plays, made three television films, and composed a number of hit songs.

But alas, his last days were that of a typical South African artist in their old age: forgotten and neglected. He was heavily in debt and lived through the help of friends and a stipend from the Theatre Benevolent Fund.

In 2003, Kente announced he had HIV. And true to the artist that he was, he refused to allow this to get him down. Instead, it became a calling.

It inspired his last play, The Call, about a man living with HIV, who decides to use his status to bring hope to other people. He received much praise for his announcement and bravery, as well as a visit by Nelson Mandela to his hospital bed.

The tribute at the Market Theatre comes after its debut success in November 2017 at the Soweto theatre. The large cast of talented musicians, dancers and performers bring to life the genius of Bra Gib.

Gibson Kentes’ productions will forever remain sentimental to me and a key narrative for my appreciation for the arts and theatre. Growing up in Daveyton and attending boarding school in Umtata, I recall watching Mama and Load at Umtata City Hall. I was 17 years old and in Matric,” said Xoliswa Nduneni-Ngema, CEO of Joburg City Theatres.

The show was sold out two days in a row, but I managed to squeeze in. The hall was packed to capacity; we stood against the wall for the duration of the show. I clearly remember my gratitude for his music. I am fortunate to have met him and still have original vinyls (LP’s) of Sikalo 1&2 and How Long,” said Nduneni-Ngema.

One person to look out for on the stage is Xolisle Bongwana, an accomplished dancer in his own right, who gives a splendid performance. Dance can be difficult to interpret, but the serene and regal movements of Bongwana make one feel what words alone could not.

As for Kente, he stands out through the ages as an artist who chose to carry the burdens of his people. When the pain of simply living became crushing, he did not turn away – he decided to feel. The bleakness that has led many to numb themselves at a time of despair never broke him.

All that I am offering,” he once said, “is to publicise black pain in an artistic and entertaining manner. DM

The musical tribute is made in partnership with the Soweto Theatre and Market Theatre, and ran from 13 – 29 April 2018.

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