BY BILLY SUTER
DURBAN’S Playhouse Company has sprung to life with a staging of Gibson Kente’s landmark musical drama, How Long?, which opened last night (May 5) at the large Playhouse Opera theatre and will be presented there until May 27.
How Long?, after an absence of 45 years, returns to the South African stage in an epic new production presented by The Playhouse Company, an agency of the Department of Arts and Culture.
“It is fitting, as we salute Africa Month, that we honour the memory of Gibson Kente, one of the formative figures of South Africa’s theatre scene,” said Linda Bukhosini, the company’s chief executive and artistic director.
“We at The Playhouse Company are proud to have assembled some of the best artists in our country. Directed by Duma Ndlovu with choreography by Somizi Mhlongo and musical direction by Phelelani Mnomiya, How Long? stars, among others, Thembi Mtshali, Phindile Gwala, Khaya Dladla, Mondli Makhoba and Nqobile Ndlovu.”
At the request of Ndlovu, The Playhouse has commissioned the orchestration of Kente’s music which now features a six-member band and the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra.
A melodramatic musical play with political undertones in Kente’s famous township theatre style, the work is based on the death of Khulu, a helpless grandmother, through brutal police action under apartheid bureaucracy.
Kente wrote the play as a response to pressure from Black Consciousness structures that all cultural work needed to reflect the material conditions of Black people in South Africa. Kente rose to the occasion. How Long? exploded on township halls and the black masses responded. The play was later banned and Kente was imprisoned as a direct result. Part of a trilogy of the only political plays by Kente, the work was written and last performed in 1973 before it was banned.
“Gibson Kente was a man who generously shared his wisdom and his theatre expertise with younger actors privileged to work under him,” says director Ndlovu. “In this regard, he helped launch the careers of South African icons such as Darlington Michaels, Mbongeni Ngema, Sello Maake KaNcube and Brenda Fassie. Shortly before he died in 2002, Kente entrusted me with the responsibility of representing his music. To this end, in 2004, I was instrumental in the Gibson Kente Foundation coming into being.”
“Where his contemporaries such as Athol Fugard – who, like him, stood against social and political injustice in this country – took their work into the cross-over arena, drawing the international limelight, Gibson Kente chose rather to withdraw his work and take it to grassroots audiences in black townships, where the people saw his plays being performed in community halls.
“This earned him the true epithet of the ‘Father of Black South African Township Theatre’. As the custodian of the Gibson Kente Foundation, it is my honour to keep ‘Bab’ Kente’s legacy alive, and I am excited to be directing this masterpiece.”
For many years himself one of the brightest lights on South Africa’s cultural landscape, Ndlovu is internationally renowned as an acclaimed playwright, director and executive producer, working in the fields of film, television and stage and many others.
The executive director and founder at Word of Mouth Pictures, Ndlovu has, over the years, produced a body of work that reads like a lexicon of creativity in the annals of South African dhow business. From creating his early masterpieces such as Bergville Stories, to big stage productions such as The Game – which has been seen twice by Playhouse audiences over the past two decades – his portfolio includes being the South African casting director for Disney’s mega-hit Lion King companies. He has also created long-running TV soap operas such as Muvhango and Uzalo, and most recently, Imbewu – The Seed, currently screening on e.tv.
Choreographer Somizi Mhlongo has been in the entertainment business for almost 30 years. His career began when he was 13 years and joined the Broadway musical Sarafina!, travelling the world for five years with the production. He later starred in the film adaptation of Sarafina!which also became the first big project he choreographed. As a young star he featured in the movie, Cry, The Beloved Country.
Somizi has rooted himself at the vanguard of the South African entertainment industry, becoming the go-to choreographer for high-end stage and television shows, hosting live events and music video productions, working as the lead choreographer for Miss South Africa pageants from 1998 to 2008, and appearing on his own show on Cliff Central.
Heading the cast of How Long? is actress Thembi Mtshali, revered leading lady of the South African stage and screen. A Lifetime Achievement honoree at the 2017 Naledi Awards ceremony in Johannesburg,Mtshali-Jones commands a fan base of thousands through her creations of many memorable persona in the entertainment world over the years. She first became a household name with the popular comedy, Sgudi Snaysi, and most recently appeared in the e.tv drama series, Broken Vows.
Also featuring on the distinguished cast list of How Long? are Vusi Majola and rising young stars-in-making, Mduduzi Nombela, Nokubonga Khuzwayo, Nokwanda Khuzwayo, Mlamli Ningiza and Lungelo Ndlovu.
Show times for How Long? are at 7pm on Fridays, 2pm and 7pm on Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays. Tickets range in price from R100 to R150. Booking is at Computicket.