Stephen Black (1879-1931) was a South African playwright, actor, director-producer, satirist, journalist and novelist. He is also known as "South Africa's first professional dramatist".
He was born Stephen William Black in September 1879 in Claremont, Cape Town and was brought up and educated under extremely poor circumstances. He left school in standard six, but later returned and completed his schooling at Diocesan College ("Bishops") at the age of 23.
He started out as an amateur boxer, boxing writer and manager of heavyweight boxer Mike Williams. In 1902, he was engaged by George Kingswell who was owner and editor of The Owl, to write articles on boxing for the weekly paper. After working as sports editor for some time, he left The Owl and joined The Cape Argus in 1904 as a sports writer - in that year he also wrote a series of articles for The Argus about the plight of the so-called "Cape Coloureds". This is when the English author and journalist Rudyard Kipling , on a visit to Cape Town, advised him to keep writing, but to concentrate on his stories of the Cape characters and dialect. This led to him writing his first stage play. He also wrote three novels, two published under the pen name T. Werner Laurie and the third unpublished, and the screenplay for the film The Life of Rhodes.
He staged his plays with a dedicated theatre company he set up with Frank de Jong, and they toured the country for fifteen years. After this he went to London as the representative of I.W. Schlesinger, and then retired to a farm near Nice, France. After tiring of this, he left his wife Andree (née Judin) there, went to Rhodesia for a while, and then returned to the Cape in 1928 as freelance journalist for the Argus and for a while published and edited a journal known as LSD ("Life, Sports and Drama").
He then created a new theatre company which took the road with reworked versions of his plays for two years before being employed by the Schlesinger Organisation to edit The Sjambok (1929-1930), a weekly critical paper they were bringing out. This was forced to close because of the many libel suits. In July 1931 he started a New Sjambok (1931), but fell ill and died shortly afterwards in Johannesburg on the 8th August 1931 of lung cancer.
Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and/or performance
While working as a part-time journalist in Cape Town he wrote his first stage play, the immensely popular farce Love and the Hyphen (staged by De Jongh in 1908). This was not only the first English play written by a born and bred South African, but also the first really to deal openly with the complex and humourous implications of colour in South Africa. He followed this with Helena’s Hope, Ltd, (1910), based on his experiences of mining in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and (after a stint as reporter for the London Daily Mail), Van Kalabas Does His Bit (1916). These were his most successful plays, a trilogy of pieces all using the same wide range of South African characters, produced by what was then called the De Jong-Black Company theatrical company, recruited in England by Frank de Jong and Stephen Black as a result of the immense success of Love and the Hyphen.
He also made his first appearance as an actor for the De Jong-Black Company, taking the role of "Jeremiah Luke M'bene" in Helena's Hope, Ltd, under the stage name Edward Radlowe. When this company folded due to the flu epidemic and the workers strikes in the early twenties, he became an actor in Leonard Rayne's company.
After the time he spent in Europe he returned to the Cape and set up a new company which took the road with reworked versions of his plays.
His plays were never published during his life-time, but only re-discovered in the seventies when there was an upsurge of interest in early South African writing in English and the three major plays were collected and edited by Stephen Gray and published by Ad Donker in 1984, with the assistance of the Centre for South African Theatre Research at the Human Sciences Research Council.
Love and the Hyphen (premiered 16 November 1908)
Helena's Hope, Ltd (premiered 1910)
The Uitlanders (1911)
A Boer's Honour (1912)
Van Kalabas Does His Bit (1916)
The Dorp (under the pen name T. Werner Laurie, 1920)
The Golden Calf: A Story of the Diamond Fields (under the pen name T. Werner Laurie, London, 1925)
Jill Fletcher. 1994. The Story of Theatre in South Africa: A Guide to its History from 1780-1930. Cape Town: Vlaeberg.
Gray, Stephen 1984. The theatre of Stephen Black: an example of cultural discontinuity in South Africa. In White, Landeg and Couzens, Tim (eds.). Literature and Society in South Africa. Pinelands, Cape Town : Maskew Miller Longman. 101-109.
Peter Joyce. 1999. A Concise Dictionary of South African Biography. Cape Town: Francolin Publishers.
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