Prolific playwright, director and producer Gibson Kente announced in 2003 that would change not only his own life forever, but those of many people who stood to benefit from his talent and mentorship.
On one of the stages of The Market Theatre, Kente, who was widely regarded as the father of township theatre, announced with a brave face that he had been diagnosed HIV-positive. However, being a fighter who used theatre to battle the apartheid system, he also announced he was not going to face his demise quietly.
He intended to write what would become his last play about issues of AIDS and HIV in communities. When he died in 2004, he had delivered the new play but, due to his failing health, he had not been able to take it on the road to large theatres.
SA’s arts leaders promised they would not let his legacy be forgotten, and an announcement was made of plans to start a Gibson Kente Foundation — a promise that was not fulfilled.
Now Kente’s legacy is getting new life in a musical directed by Makhaola Ndebele, which opened at the Soweto Theatre in 2017 to critical acclaim, and is now on at The Market Theatre.
The cast of The Gibson Kente Music Tribute is a marvel to watch. The dance sequences are flawless and the Kente-style music leaves little room for dialogue, but what dialogue there is captures the spirit of several of his plays and the political context in which they were written.
Kente had a remarkable ability and the foresight to understand that theatre could be used as a weapon to fight a system that weighed hard on the black population. He could have used his gift of words and music to tell entertaining stories to fill venues, but most of his plays were a form of political education.
He left an indelible mark on the theatre industry because he mentored many who went on to become stars, including Mbongeni Ngema of Sarafina fame, multi-award-winning actor Sello Maake, singer and actress Marah Louw and legendary actor Darlington Michaels.
His political messages often got him into trouble with the apartheid regime. Three of his plays — How Long, I Believe and Too Late — were banned and he was jailed for a year in 1976. Township legends such as Kente have influenced the cultural, economic and political landscape of SA.
Bra Gib, as he was known, was a director, producer, playwright, music composer and choreographer whose style still influences many actors and directors today. His signature style is firmly embedded in all of Ngema’s musicals.
The father of township theatre is a title Kente richly deserved. It is estimated that he wrote 23 plays and three television dramas that reflected township life, and he trained and inspired hundreds of black actors and singers at a time when black creativity was viewed as a threat and suppressed. With the limited resources available in townships, Kente created musicals and plays that illustrated black pain, love and aspiration in the time of apartheid.
The Gibson Kente Music Tribute coincides with the 55th anniversary of the production of his first play, Manana The Jazz Prophet, which featured celebrated musicians Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu.
The Gibson Kente musical is produced by the Soweto Theatre and is presented at the Market Theatre, in partnership with the Joburg City Theatres.
The musical immerses audiences in beautifully haunting sounds that Kente orchestrated in Dube, Soweto.
It is a spectacular collage honouring his legacy and his exceptional body of work, composed with a brave, stylistic artistry. The music provides insight into the passion that possessed the man born in a small town outside East London.
Audiences who have not encountered his work will leave the theatre with an idea of the style of theatre Kente produced.
• The Gibson Kente Music Tribute is at The Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg until April 29.