Gibson Kente

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Gibson Mtutuzeli "Slick" Kente (1932-2004) [1] was a South African playwright, actor, teacher, musician, composer, impressario and teacher. Fondly known to many as “Bra Gib” – widely recognised to be the foremost black playwright and one of the leading cultural icons of his time.


Born in East London, he learnt choral music at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work, and starting as a young performer in King Kong and a member of Union Artists at Dorkay House, Kente initially worked as a talent scout for Gallo Records, where he began by writing music for singers like Miriam Makeba. This led to his first efforts at playwriting, Manana the Jazz Prophet (1963) and the immensely popular Sikhalo [“Lament”] (1966), which were developed while he was at Union Artists, and toured the country under their auspices. The latter was also performed before a multiracial audience in the Wits Great Hall and “lives in memory as second only to King Kong in black township memory” [Kruger, 1999]. This success made him break away and start his own company, GK Productions , with which he did the rest of his work over the years, including Sikalo (1966), Lifa (1967/72), Zwi [“Alone”] (1970), How Long? (1973), Too Late (1974), Now is the Time (1982), Sekunjalo (The Hour is Come – Grahamstown Main Festival, 1987), Give a Child (1990) and that other enormous success, Mama and the Load, (or sometimes only referred to as The Load). First performed 1979, The Load toured the black townships of the country for years, with up to four companies out at a time. What makes Kente such an iconic figure in the history of South African theatre is not only his phenominal commercial success as entrepreneur and entertainer and his prophetic belief that the real need was for theatre about black life by black performers for black audiences, but his seminal role in the development of a distinctively personal style of musical theatre and theatrical production which has come to be known as the “township musical”. Based on the variety tradition pioneered by Griffiths Motsieloa and Todd Matshikiza, it utilizes an eclectic mix of melodramatic plots, African variety dance and music to tell simple but emotionally charged stories about black life in South Africa. He produced more than 20 plays in this style, most of them immensely popular between the 1960s and 1990s. Picked up by a few other artists (notably his primary rival, Sam Mhangwane), Kente’s style has ultimately had an enormous impact in the form of South African theatre was to take in the 1980s and later. (vide such plays as *** and Sophiatown). His influence on the industry in general has been equally strong, for example he was at one stage paying his performers four times what they could earn in the manufacturing sector and he thus drew many young people into the business. It is estimated that he trained and launched the careers of an estimated 400 black performers in the South African industry, including Brenda Fassie, Nomsa Nene, Peter Se-Puma, Sello Maake ka Ncube, Mbongeni Ngema. However, revered as he has been, his own plays are seldom taken seriously as literary or “relevant” works, despite a brief flirtation with more serious “political” work, just before and during 1976, with How Long? (1973), I Believe (1974, or Our Belief?* according to Melvin Whitebooi, 2004), Too Late (1974, published 1981, and banned for a while by the government), and the film, How Long Must We Suffer (1976, banned and Kente imprisoned for 6 months). His work of the 1970-1980s was in fact rejected as cheap escapist entertainment by SASO and the intellectuals of the BCM movement. As a result, only two plays have been published to date, though there are recordings of How Long?, Too Late and Sikalo. Unfortunately many of his unpublished texts were lost in a fire in 1989. In the 1990s Kente predictably began writing drama series for SABC Television, including ** In 2004 he was celebrated as a ‘living treasure” by the National Arts Council of South Africa, but sadly in the same year he declared himself HIV positive and, while working on his 24th play (an Aids awareness work entitled The Call), he died on 7 November. After his death the Kente Foundation was founded, i.a. to seek to have more of his work published. *He presented a tour of his play, Sikhalo in 1961. His The Train was staged at Dorkay House circa 1974. His musical Sekunjalo, the Naked Hour was staged at the Grahamstown Arts Festival, Pretoria State Theatre in September 1988 and the Alexander Theatre. KENTE,Gibson. Manana the Jazz Prophet (1963) and Sikalo (Lament) (1966, Musical). Formed his own company with musical plays like Lifa (1968) & Zwi (1970). How Long??, I Believe & Too Late !974-76) Can You Take It (1977), a township love story, La Duma (It thundered) (1978) Mama and The Load at Market Theatre (1980) dramatizations of the conflict between political pressures and family/community solidarity. Ezakithi (It is us) Market Theatre (2001).(Music that fuses tradition and urban style & disciplined choreography La Duma.*** (Kavanagh, 1984, Larlham, 198*, Hauptfleisch and Steadman 1984, Kruger, 1999, Tucker, 1997) Gibson Kente is the best known and most popular playwright inside South Africa. In the mid-'5os he worked with popular entertainers like Miriam Makeba and Letta Mbuli. His first theatre production was Manana the Jazz Prophet. In 1967 he became the first black artist to own a theatre company. He produced popular works like Sikalo, Lifa, and Zwi. From the mid-'70s he produced three politically oriented plays, How Long?, I Believe, and Too Late. The Kente "genre" is generally referred to as the "township musical." It reflects the dislocations, poverty, and rootlessness of black South African urban life. (Wakashe, 1986) Born Gibson Mthuthuzeli Kente on July 25 (some sources say July 23), 1932, in Duncan Village, Eastern Cape, South Africa; died November 7, 2004, in Soweto, South Africa, of complications from AIDS; children: sons Feza and Mzwandile. Education: Attended a Seventh-Day Adventist college in Butterworth, South Africa, early 1950s, and Jan Hofmeyer School of Social Work, mid-1950s. Career: Born in 1932, Kente grew up in Duncan Village, the black township outside the city of East London in South Africa's Eastern Cape. He was schooled at a Seventh-Day Adventist college in Butterworth, and around 1956 moved to Johannesburg to enroll at the Jan Hofmeyer School of Social Work. He formed a gospel jazz group called the Kente Choristers while there, and eventually abandoned his studies altogether after joining a black theater group called the Union Artists. The township drama was born out of a 1959 musical, King Kong, which had been written by whites but proved a hit with black audiences. In apartheid-era South Africa, the term "township" denoted a place that was anything but pastoral or idyllic. The townships were blacks-only suburbs, with shanties and cinder-block homes among the better-constructed residences, situated near large cities like Johannesburg. There were schools and churches, but very little in the way of organized entertainment. Career2 Playwright, theater director, and theater manager. Formed a gospel jazz group, the Kente Choristers, in Johannesburg in the late 1950s; became a member of a black theatre group, the Union Artists; wrote and directed his first musical, Manana the Jazz Prophet, in 1963; established his own theater group, GK Productions. With the end of apartheid and the first free and democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, Kente's plays finally began to receive official support and funding. By then, however, he was on the fringes of the South African cultural scene. A 13-part television project in 1995 titled Mama's Love earned such scathing reviews that it was nearly cancelled after just two episodes, and Kente's critics called him a disgrace to black theater. Despite the initial bad press, the project did remain on the air in its entirety, and one of its lines even entered the vernacular and became a popular soccer stadium chant.

Kente's Mfowethu - Songs and Dance was staged at the Jabulani Amphitheatre in Soweto in January 1994.

Fondly known to many as “Bra Gib” – widely recognised to be the foremost black playwright and one of the leading cultural icons of his time. His prolific musical productions, staged between the mid-1960s and 2004, were enthusiastically received by township audiences throughout South Africa. Kente’s touring township shows (referred to as the "Township Musical") came to define South African township theatre and provided the base from which much black – and other – South African theatre was later to flourish. His work to date has been poorly documented and the records of all but one of his plays were lost in a fire.


Solberg, 2011

City Press, 9 January 1994.

Tribute by Melvin Whitebooi, Die Burger, 4 December 2004.

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