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Arguably the most popular playwright-director in South African Theatre history is “Bra Gib”, Gibson Kente. Born in 1932, Kente became the father of Black Theatre. He was a great patriot and founding father of Black Theatre in South ; an effective voice of the oppressed though the arts, he articulated the socio-economic imbalances created by the apartheid regime. Kente was not only an artist but also a vehicle for change. He conscientised the nation through music and theatre and gave a nation confidence in the midst of repression and brutality.
Kente was largely unknown to the white theatre-going population of South Africa – however he produced 23 plays and many TV dramas from 1963-1992. Kente grew up in Duncan Village, a black village in the Eastern Cape. He was schooled at a Seventh-Day Adventist College in Butterworth. In 1956, he moved to Johannesburg and enrolled at the Jan Hofmeyer School of Social Work. He eventually abandoned his studies after he joined a black theatre group called the Union Artists.
This is where he embarked on his career writing, producing and directing, where he created the unique genre referred to as the “township musical. Kente developed a style and pattern for his plays specifically to deal with the challenges and needs of his audiences. His plays were melodramas of township life, which were performed in an over-the-top, stylized manner using stock characters and a declamatory style of performance. His style of directing his actors to ‘overact’ was in order to compensate for many of the townships venues which had poor acoustics.
His use of music, movement, gesture, gimmicks, dance and acrobatics were directly related to his problem with township venues.
These large halls were not complimentary to any type of method acting. The movements had to be unnaturalistic, the acting was vigorous and exaggerated well beyond reality, in order to have an impact on the eye and the ear. There was also a devaluing of dialogue – the dialogue is in English, however, most of it was inaudible because of audience noise and interaction, bad voice projection in the acoustically unsound halls, the musical band and unfamiliarity with words from the script.
The audiences were not there to appreciate the subtlety of language through the use of puns or witticisms – they were there to be entertained through the stock characters antics – to recognize themselves on stage. Kente’s aim was to fill township venues and he did. The majority of his plays are stylistically similar: the acting style hardly varies, the story development is superficial, there is an absence of conflict other than the physical fights and the slanging matches between characters.
The plots were simple – they were made up of occurrences which were happening in the townships and in daily township life. Ian Steadman writes in his article Alternative Politics, Alternative Performance: 1976 and Black South African Theatre that “while he [Kente] has been criticised by more radical Black Consciousness proponents for being a-political, Kente’s theatre succeeds in creating social comment and criticism – sometimes by implication, at other times by direct proseltism” (1984: 219).
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