Born in 1932, Kente was raised in Duncan Village, a township in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. He honed his skills working for Union Artists, before breaking with them to form an all-black production company in the early 1960’s having decided that “black-produced, black-acted shows for black audiences were the only viable direction for black theatre to take”. His early plays like Manana, the Jazz Prophet and Sikalo were indicative of their time and did not explore overtly political themes. Instead they focussed on dramatised versions of every-day life; love, adultery, alcoholism and crime, showing the consequences of apartheid without challenging it. Popular stereotypes such as gangsters and hookers, making mischief in shebeens (an illicit drinking establishments) were brought to life by the fusion of text, music, dance and song.
This changed with How Long. First produced in Soweto (South Western Townships outside Johannesburg) in late 1973 it marks a clear turning point for Kente, and highlights a new direction for township theatre. Presenting the story of a dustman, desperate to save enough money for his son “Africa” to stay in school, it tackled issues that were increasing important to the vast majority of South Africans and coincided with the National Party’s laws of 1974. These ensured that Afrikaans was the only language to be used in secondary schools for blacks – an incendiary policy that led to the Soweto uprising of 1976.
This theatrical politicisation mirrored what was taking place in the lives of those in the townships. The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) provided the people and theatre with both the rhetoric and organizing principles for protest. They also urged black self-reliance and self-respect and stressed the political importance of artistic activities. Students and artists began to favour black material relevant to their experience.
The theatre, and its association with the BCM was considered a serious threat by the apartheid government and many key players were harassed, arrested, detained and even tortured. The mounting state-control and police action of the 1970’s meant troupes were frequently silenced or disbanded.
Strini Moodley, founding member of the Theatre Council of Natal (TECON) was arrested in in 1974 and convicted under the Terrorism Act, spending six years imprisoned on Robben Island, in the same cell block as Nelson Mandela. A similar fate befell Solly Ismael and Sadeque Variava of the People’s Experimental Theatre (PET) – leading to the company’s disintegration.
Even Kente wasn’t safe from the authorities. He was arrested in 1976 during the making of the film version of How Long, the first black-made film in South African cinema history. The director, actor and playwright Maishe Maponya was another key figure; he was forcibly removed to Diepkloof (a township in Guateng) under the Apartheid laws when he was 11. His early work includes 1979’s The Hungry Earth looking at the lives of three miners in rural and urban settings, and Umongikazi (1983) which explored apartheid in hospitals. Gangsters and Dirty Work of (1984) explicitly concerns itself with security state and its agents. Similarly, Matsemala Manaka’s Pula: A Prayer for showcases the demoralization of the black man in South Africa whilst his 1984 play Children of Asazi is a love story set in Alexandra Township (Johannesburg) during its demolition…