Drama dream: Veteran actress Thembi Mtshali, who found Kente’s work inspiring in the 1970s, says it is a dream come true to be in the cast of restaging of How Long. Picture: SUPPLIED
Drama dream: Veteran actress Thembi Mtshali, who found Kente’s work inspiring in the 1970s, says it is a dream come true to be in the cast of restaging of How Long. Picture: SUPPLIED

Gibson Kente has come to life with the recent revival of his work, the Gibson Kente Music Tribute, directed by Makhaola Ndebele, staged at the Soweto Theatre and Market Theatre in April, and celebrating the legacy of the father of township theatre.

At the same time his play, How Long, is being staged at the Playhouse Company in Durban, adapted and directed by Duma Ndlovu. This is Kente’s most popular work and the only play for which there is a full script.

The playwright lost nearly all his work in a fire when his Soweto home was firebombed in 1989. He died in 2004.

The Gibson Kente Foundation, of which Ndlovu is the custodian, faces the challenge of gathering material from students and theatre critics in order to rebuild Kente’s legacy.

"My research right now on township theatre focuses on the fact that black writers did not follow a particular pattern of writing and therefore left scanty scholarship around their work, including the scripts themselves," Ndlovu says.

"Our aim with the foundation is to recreate his work. We managed to recreate four plays and the process included collecting some of his actors to re-enact some of the scripts. That is an incomplete process. So there’s more work and research to be done.

"I had an opportunity to sit down with Gibson Kente in 1985 when I gave him an award in the US from the Woza Africa Foundation I was running. I then asked him for permission to stage some of his works. He only granted me that permission in 2002, and gave me the authority to carry on his legacy."

How Long was last performed 45 years ago. Kente’s greatest contribution was to give black people pride when apartheid stripped it away, by creating theatre in the townships that reflected their joys and sorrows. He wrote How Long as a response to pressure from Black Consciousness structures that all cultural work needed to reflect the material conditions of black people in SA.

A massive hit in township halls, How Long was part of a trilogy of the only political plays by Kente, which include I Believe and Too Late. How Long was later banned and Kente was imprisoned.

The restaging offers a new generation an opportunity to learn Kente’s work. For veteran actress Thembi Mtshali, the oldest member of the cast who found Kente’s work inspiring in the 1970s, this is a dream come true.

"We knew the words to How Long and sang it like a national anthem. With the land issue so contentious right now, it’s important for the young ones to see this work and know why we should get our land back," Mtshali says.

Theatre makers such as Chuma Sopotela are reclaiming Kente as a theatre scholar who should enjoy the same esteem in higher learning art curricula as the likes of Polish theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski.

Kente is known for his eccentric approach to performance and his melodramatic signature. In his adaptation of How Long, Ndlovu has maintained Kente’s essence in the music, humour and vibrancy with which township life is portrayed.

The play is based on the death of a grandmother in brutal police action during apartheid. In addition to showing black people’s pain, the play criticises the role of some black people in the struggle.

The play is based on the death of a grandmother in brutal police action during apartheid. In addition to showing black people’s pain, the play criticises the role of some black people in the struggle

Stylistically it’s interesting to watch How Long and see the roots that grew into plays such as Sarafina. Mbongeni Ngema and other theatre practitioners such as Sello Maake ka Ncube were moulded by Kente.

The music is a revelation. Elevated by the inclusion of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra, it shows off Kente’s sophistication and subtle complexity in composing — jazz, R&B and choral compositions are tackled with soul and wit.

Kente’s music demonstrates how song is such an intrinsic part of African storytelling because to sing when happy, when in pain, when protesting or when going to war is how black people navigate life. Certain histories are written in the songs that Africans have created and Kente’s music is up there with the best.

As part of the mandate of the foundation, a Gibson Kente memorial lecture is in the works and there are hopes the play will tour SA.

How Long is at the Playhouse Company in Durban until May 25.

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