Gibson Kente Biography - Endured Arduous Tours, Retreated from the Political Message
South African writer Gibson Kente single-handedly made the "township musical," a form of popular theater in black South African culture during the repressive apartheid era, into a dominant means of expression and exuberance. He died of acquired immune-deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in 2004 after a career that spanned nearly 50 years, and his impact on South African culture was impressive. "He wrote and performed plays which reflected township life," noted a Guardian tribute by Liz McGregor, "and trained and inspired hundreds of black actors and singers at a time when black creativity was viewed as a threat and suppressed by the apartheid state. Using the limited resources available in townships, he created musicals and plays that reflected the fears, hopes, joys and tribulations of black urban communities."
Born in 1932, Kente grew up in Duncan Village, the black township outside the city of East London in South Africa's Eastern Cape. He was schooled at a Seventh-Day Adventist college in Butterworth, and around 1956 moved to Johannesburg to enroll at the Jan Hofmeyer School of Social Work. He formed a gospel jazz group called the Kente Choristers while there, and eventually abandoned his studies altogether after joining a black theater group called the Union Artists. The township drama was born out of a 1959 musical, King Kong, which had been written by whites but proved a hit with black audiences. In apartheid-era South Africa, the term "township" denoted a place that was anything but pastoral or idyllic. The townships were blacks-only suburbs, with shanties and cinder-block homes among the better-constructed residences, situated near large cities like Johannesburg. There were schools and churches, but very little in the way of organized entertainment.
Endured Arduous Tours
Kente founded a theater business in the early 1960s and asked his friends to submit scripts. Few that met his requirements were forthcoming, so he began writing his own plays. The first of these was Manana, the Jazz Prophet, which premiered in 1963. His next was Sikalo, which was a great success and even played to white audiences in the city of Witwatersrand in 1965 and 1966. Its story features a young man who tries to avoid the gangs in his township, but winds up in jail anyway. These and subsequent township musicals had several common features: much of the action took place in the quasi-legal shebeens, or taverns, where black South Africans could drink. Such establishments were usually run by a formidable woman, and populated by tsotsis, or thugs, dancing girls, and ordinary workers. There was usually a pompous police officer to provide comic relief, as well as dissolute priests and a Zulu boy who delivered his lines in broken English. Song and dance were also key elements of the township musical, and Kente wrote his own scores, which were heavy on jazz and African gospel.
Kente's musicals proved a great success, and he and his actors were determined to bring them to a wider audience outside of Soweto, the Johannesburg township that was his home. Government restrictions, however, usually granted them a performance permit for one night only, and so they were constantly en route from one community hall to another. His group, G. K. Productions, trained an entire generation of black South African performers, some of whom would attain stardom on the international stage—among them Mbongeni Ngema, the writer, composer, and director of the musical Sarafina!
In the early 1970s, as South Africa's detested apartheid laws neared their quarter-century mark, Kente's writings for the stage began to reflect his dissent against white rule. How Long, first produced in Soweto in December of 1973, recounts the story of a humble dustman who is determined to provide his son, named "Africa," with the necessary funds to stay in school. At the time, educational opportunities for South Africa's black majority were severely restricted, and the government was even about to implement a new education policy that made Afrikaans, the language of the white South African, the only language of instruction in secondary schools for blacks. There was much resentment against this 1974 law, and it eventually led to a dramatic and bloody uprising in Soweto in 1976 that garnered international attention.
I Believe, produced in April of 1974, was Kente's next work, and one that took to task the different ethnic tensions in the black townships and the divisiveness that resulted. Its protagonist is Zwelithsa, a Xhosa, who falls in love with young woman from a different tribe. Too Late, which opened in Soweto in February of 1975, is usually deemed to be Kente's finest work. Its story centers around an orphan, Saduwa, who comes to Soweto to live with his aunt, who runs a shebeen. Though his cousin, Ntanana, he meets a young woman named Totozi and romance blossoms. Desperate to find work in Johannesburg, Saduwa must first obtain an all-important "pass," without which he cannot leave the township to get to his job. His attempts to do so bring a priest and then a police officer into his life, and in the end his aunt is arrested. When authorities try to arrest Saduwa as well, his cousin Ntanana, who is disabled, attempts to help, and is slain. The work had a relatively happy ending, but Kente's Times of London obituary found that Too Late, I Believe, and How Long seemed to be works "which, with the benefit of hindsight, have come to be seen as prophetic in their warnings that violence would soon come to South Africa if circumstances did not change," the newspaper noted. "The authorities received these plays with overt hostility, and some theatres banned them."
Retreated from the Political Message
Kente was arrested during the making of a film version of How Long in 1976, which went by the longer title How Long Must We Suffer …? It was filmed during the historic Soweto uprising, and was the first black-made film in South African cinema history. Kente spent six months in jail, and after his release in 1977 returned to writing musicals, though the political content was virtually nonexistent. His later works include Can You Take It?, Lobola, and Mama and the Load, but the rest of the 1980s saw the rise of a formal protest theater movement emerging in South Africa. Kente distanced himself from this and even criticized it for fomenting racial hatred. "Kente came under pressure from activists to be more political," explained Chris Barron in an Africa News Service report. "On at least one occasion they tried to disrupt a show, but Kente aficionados in the audience outnumbered them and they were silenced."
In 1988 Kente touched upon political themes once again with Sekunjao, whose message seemed a warning to South Africa's black elite not to abuse their power should they attain it in the future. Government authorities stepped in and arrested the entire cast—a somewhat ironic move, for they seemed to have missed Sekunjao's message entirely, which hinted that a black-run government might treat its own even worse than an apartheid-centered one. "Presumably someone got the message at last," noted Barron in the Africa News Service article, "because the play was then unbanned, and Kente was invited by the government-sponsored Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal to stage it at the State Theatre in Pretoria." Because of that, however, his house was firebombed by black extremists in 1989.
With the end of apartheid and the first free and democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, Kente's plays finally began to receive official support and funding. By then, however, he was on the fringes of the South African cultural scene. A 13-part television project in 1995 titled Mama's Love earned such scathing reviews that it was nearly cancelled after just two episodes, and Kente's critics called him a disgrace to black theater. Despite the initial bad press, the project did remain on the air in its entirety, and one of its lines even entered the vernacular and became a popular soccer stadium chant.
"Let's Hold Hands. Let's Not Hide."
Kente struggled financially over the years. He never earned royalties from his earlier works, and was mired in debt by the time he announced, in late 2003, that he had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. He made his announcement with two of South Africa's most famous musical stars, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, at his side, in what many hailed as an extremely courageous move. There was still an enormous taboo associated with the disease in South Africa, where even prominent members of the African National Congress had asserted that AIDS deaths were due to poverty, not HIV infection. Five years earlier, a South African woman named Gugu Dlamini had publicly disclosed she had the disease and was beaten to death by a mob. Kente was one of four million South Africans thought to be HIV-positive, and he told the nation that day that "my HIV status is going to let me live longer," his Times of London obituary quoted him as saying, "because I've got a challenge, because I know that I've got a duty to the people out there to inspire them that, 'Folks, the fight is on! Let's hold hands. Let's not hide.'"
Kente died on November 7, 2004, in Soweto. Though his township musicals passed out of popular favor as relics of a distant and painful past, they remain important in the history of South Africa's struggle toward majority rule. "One theme that runs through Kente's plays," noted an essay on his life and work in Contemporary Dramatists, "is the idea of human interest and hope in times of trouble, with family and community always being there to support the individual."
Manana, the Jazz Prophet, 1963.
Sikalo, produced by Union Artists at The Great Hall of Witwatersrand University, 1965-66.
Life, produced 1967-70.
Zwi, produced 1967-70.
How Long, produced in Soweto, 1973.
I Believe, produced 1974.
Too Late, produced in Soweto, February 1975.
Can You Take It?, produced 1977.
Hard Road, produced 1978.
Lobola, produced 1980.
Mama and the Load, produced 1981.
Sekunjao, produced 1988.
Mama's Love, 1995.
Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed., St. James Press, 1999.
Solberg, Rolf, Alternative Theatre in South Africa: Talks with Prime Movers Since the 1970s, Hadeda Books, 1999.
South African People's Plays: Ons Phoba Hi, Heinemann, 1981.
Africa News Service, November 15, 2004.
Guardian (London, England), November 10, 2004, p. 33.
Independent (London, England), November 15, 2004, p. 35.
Times (London, England), November 11, 2004, p. 81.
"Gibson Kente," National Arts Council of South Africa, www.nac.org.za/showcase_G_Kente.htm (June 9, 2005).
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