STAR DRUM WRITER
Can Themba’s world takes centre stage
Veteran TV and stage actor Sello Maake ka-Ncube encourages South African journalists to see The House of Truth, writes Edward Tsumele
When veteran TV and stage actor Sello Maake ka-Ncube stumbled on a copy of The World of Can Themba as a student in the 1980s, he was soon engrossed in the book.
"I enjoyed the writing so much I ended up putting together a play about the pieces I read in the book. Can Themba’s narrative about life in general in SA, and the colourful lifestyle he and those from Sophiatown of the 1950s and 1960s lived was well documented in the book.
"The writing was as colourful as it was exceptionally tight and perceptive. His command of the English language was out of this world," he says.
"The fact is that Can Themba and his colleagues were actually the Models Cs of that time — well educated, well read and quite conscious of the human condition in SA then."
Ka-Ncube stars in The House of Truth, which opens the Market Theatre’s 2017 season — in which he portrays the solo character Themba, one of the most famous Drum writers of the 1950s. The bio-play was written by Siphiwo Mahala and is directed by Vanessa Cooke.
It premiered to rave reviews at the National Arts Festival last year and explores the circumstances that inspired some of Themba’s most intriguing works. It also covers some profound aspects of his life that are rarely written about.
Ka-Ncube says the sketch he wrote about Themba in the 1980s was showcased at the Market Theatre Laboratory.
"Market Theatre co-founder Barney Simon was so impressed by how I presented that sketch that when an opportunity came about a few months later to play the character of Can Themba in the play, The Suit, Barney picked me for the role.
"Since then, I have been fascinated by playing the role of Can Themba," he says.
"Initially, when Siphiwo sent me the script, there were five characters. When I read it, I immediately saw that for the play to make more sense, there was a need to change the script and have one character. That way, it was going to reflect the essence of who Can Themba was, and everything else he wanted to say about life."
Ka-Ncube says the frenzied cost-cutting that has characterised South African newsrooms in recent years has diluted the quality of the media in the country today.
"The likes of Can Themba’s writing was not the type that now dominates the media platforms where sensationalism, instead of quality, seems to be the norm rather than an exception.
"Theirs [the Drum writers] was the kind of writing that was prophetic, and would still make sense 100 years after being published," he says.
"For example, they were quite aware then where the country would be now. We are now in a democracy but, unfortunately, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
"If you carefully read what scribes such as Themba wrote then, you will see they predicted where SA would be with regard to the human condition," Ka-Ncube says.
He is encouraging all South African journalists — experienced and those at the beginning of their careers — to come and see the play.
Ka-Ncube has played some of the most well-known characters on South African TV over the years including Archie Moroka on Generations, and for nearly a decade until recently, Daniel Nyathi on e.tv’s Scandal. He is currently playing Khosi, a gay character, on the Mzansi Magic soapie, The Queen.
"And I am having a ball on this show because this is the first time in my career in which I play the character of a gay man," he says.
The House of Truth was to paraphrase Themba, his way of cocking a snook at snobbery, officialdom and anything that smacked of bureaucracy
The House of Truth is at the Market Theatre until January 20, before heading to the Soweto Theatre for a season.
Themba’s life story, including his troubles with the Transvaal department of education, which refused to recognise him as a qualified teacher despite his degree, is interwoven with how he turned to journalism, rising through the ranks of Drum to become an assistant editor, but without any financial reward.
These frustrations are shared from his abode, the House of Truth, which is a single-room bachelor flat in Sophiatown in the 1950s.
The House of Truth was to paraphrase Themba, his way of cocking a snook at snobbery, officialdom and anything that smacked of bureaucracy.
There, he hosted candid debates where anyone, irrespective of race or class, was welcome to participate in intellectual engagement.
"This year, we decided to celebrate Can Themba and Es’kia Mphahlele, two writers who emerged from the 1950s and who sat opposite each other in the Drum offices," says Market Theatre artistic director James Ngcobo.
"They were both prolific [writers] who, despite apartheid, covered everything from protest writing to love stories – it’s with this narrative that we have decided to celebrate the life and times of these giants."
Following his growing frustration with the restrictions of apartheid, he moved to Swaziland, where he worked as a teacher. In 1966, he was declared a "statutory communist", and his works were banned in SA. It’s been 49 years since he died at the age of 43. His literary output only became readily available in the 1980s with the publication of two collections of his short stories, The Will to Die and The World of Can Themba.
In his stories he described the frustrations of university-educated urban black people unable to realise their potential because of the racial restrictions of apartheid.
He also described how they tried to balance their modern urban culture with their historic rural tribal roots.
"When you look at it, the man just wanted to be a teacher and was not given such an opportunity by the Transvaal education department, despite the fact that he was well qualified," Ka-Ncube says.