| Bra Gib: It’s about bloody time!
Author: Rolf Solberg
Publisher: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press
Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.
This book is long overdue (one recalls the title and theme song of one of Bra Gib’s best-known shows, HowLong). It pays tribute to the life and work of Gibson Kente, variously described as “the father of township theatre”, a “garage genius”, a “national treasure” – and a “traitor”. In the words of Doc Bikitsha, “You cannot over-estimate his contribution.” Sadly, the man who dominated township theatre for something like 30 years died a pauper in 2004, one of the many victims of HIV-Aids. The Gibson Kente Foundation has to date done little to preserve his legacy – hence the need for this book. It’s not an authorised biography, but the author, Norwegian teacher and writer Rolf Solberg, had the go-ahead from Kente himself.
Solberg faced some serious problems. These included his own relatively slight first-hand contact with Kente and his plays and the fact that hardly any scripts of the plays survive (the exception is Too Late (1975). Solberg surmounts these problems through his scrupulous reliance on the archival record (mainly in the form of press reviews and commentary) and by drawing on the accounts of those who worked with Kente or were trained by him.
The first part of the book (“Kente the playwright”) is a valuable chronological record of the plays, with brief plot synopses, compiled mainly from newspaper reviews, but supplemented by contributions from some of the surviving performers. This gives, in fairly broad strokes, a sense of Kente’s development from the early 1960s plays that established his reputation to the plays of the post-1990 dispensation. Any future researcher will be grateful for the spadework done by Solberg.
The secrets of Kente’s success become clear: his intuitive rapport with township audiences, his understanding of the conflicts and tensions (as well as of the vitality and resilience) of township life; his fusion of song, dance, comedy and melodrama to create a unique form of musical theatre. In his plays entertainment and didactic purpose are fused. What also distinguished him was his entrepreneurial drive and his insistence on taking his shows all over the country, playing in crowded township halls: at times he had as many as three companies touring at the same time. He was able to sustain this without any support from the state or the performing arts councils – and he was able to pay his cast members a decent wage!
Some recurring themes emerge: a concern with education and with social and generational issues. His almost “instinctive conservatism” (Solberg’s phrase) helps to explain his reluctance to engage in resistance politics, and his disdain for the BC-inspired political theatre that dominated the ’70s and ’80s. This brought him into conflict with COSAS, who in 1981 accused him of “not representing the truth about blacks”. The assumption that there is a single “truth” (in the possession of COSAS) is, of course, symptomatic of the polarised and uncompromising politics of the time.
Solberg’s book is notable for its dispassionate and even-handed treatment of the controversies that dogged Kente’s career from the 1970s. He was variously accused of being “an apologist for the apartheid regime” and “a traitor to the black cause”, and in 1989 his house in Soweto was petrol-bombed and valuable documentation was destroyed in the blaze. Solberg’s book helps to put these difficulties into context, and provides a picture of a complex man who was clearly out of step with the comrades – but who refused to compromise. Kente saw himself as a bridge-builder and a humanist – he counted Nelson Mandela as an uncle and regarded Buthelezi as a “buddy”. Interestingly, in Sekunjalo (1987) he provides a very critical portrayal of life in a future black-ruled South Africa in which many of the ideals for which people had fought were being betrayed.
Primarily, of course, Kente was a man of the theatre, and his work has left an indelible impression on South African cultural life. Many of the biggest names in theatre or music owed a great deal to him, including Mbongeni Ngema, Brenda Fassie, Sello Maake ka-Ncube, Ndaba Mhlongo, Mary Twala, Nomsa Nene, Peter Sephuma and Kenny Majozi.
Of course Kente had his limitations: he never successfully made the transition to television, and his forays into “mainstream” theatre (the Market, the Baxter, the Civic) met with a mixed response.
The second part of the book (rather misleadingly entitled “The Person Gibson Kente”) deepens our insights into the Kente method, the Kente perfectionism and the Kente approach to workshopping a play. Solberg describes his double garage at his Soweto house as “a kind of theatrical bootcamp”. Some sense of Kente’s methods and performance styles can be gleaned from the photos, which are a valuable supplement to the book.
This pioneering study may leave some questions unanswered, but it lays the foundation for future work. Kente created his own unique synthesis of performance styles and traditions, adapted to the particular conditions of the township hall. In Coplan’s words in his Foreword to the book, Kente “created a theatre of self-realization in which black audiences could see themselves and their concerns brought to the stage”.
But perhaps we should leave the last word to Kente. In some notes written towards the end of his life, he remarks:
My work will continue to mirror the culture of our people. People must walk out of the theatre proud. Proud of what they see as truly theirs. Their stories. Their songs. Their dances. Their lives. Their mannerisms and their vitality.
One can be sure that dramatists in contemporary South Africa will continue to tap into the resources which enriched Kente’s work. The result will be entertaining and compelling theatre (Fatima Dike’s So What’s New springs to mind). The book reminds us of the current neglect of township audiences by plays performed in the upmarket theatres in our city centres. Kente demonstrated that there is an audience out there, and that it can be reached.
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