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OUR PEOPLE: Gibson Kente, father of South African township drama

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Gibson "Bra Gib" Kente, born on 23 July 1932 in Duncan Village, was a brilliant, multi-talented artist who was one of the first writers to deal contemporaneously with life in South Africa's black townships.

The producer of 23 plays and television dramas between 1963 and 1992, he was known as the Father of Black Theatre in South Africa.

Kente studied social work, but soon abandoned it for his real love: drama. At the age of 23, he set off for Johannesburg and without any formal training, produced his first play, the musical Manana, The Jazz Prophet, in 1963.

Both Manana and his second play, Isikalo, in 1966 enjoyed huge township support. Neither were overtly political, but they dealt in the nitty-gritty of township existence - crime, alcoholism, love and soccer - with wit and humour.

He was prolific, producing 23 plays and three television dramas as well as writing songs for Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu and others.

Many prominent black performers, including Brenda Fassie and Mbongeni Ngema, passed through Kente's Dube garage, where he taught acting, singing and dancing.

His musicals were high-energy, melodramatic and eclectic, employing mixed dance forms and a range of local languages - Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and English.

In 1973, Kente began producing overtly political plays, such as How Long, on the pass laws, and Sekunjalo, which he regarded as his pièce de résistance, a satirical warning to the black elite not to oppress the masses after liberation. His plays were frequently banned and his actors arrested. In September 1976, he was detained by security police.

Kente began his last play, The Call, shortly after being diagnosed with HIV. The Call is about a man aiming to bring hope to people living with HIV. The hero, Smudza, forms a group to educate people about HIV, but then they fail to practise safe sex themselves. Smudza himself relies on muti (medicine) from a sangoma (a traditional healer) instead of condoms.

Gibson Mthuthuzeli Kente died in Johannesburg on 7 November 2004.

In 2018, Hudson Park High School named it's new 260-seat amphitheatre after Kente.

The tribute is the brain child of Hudson's head of Drama, Pierre Perold, who had met Kente in the 1980s.

"The theatre will be a living memorial (to Kente) ... Whenever people come to the venue they will learn about who Kente was."

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