Touch of the Kente formula may be tonic to draw younger audiences to theatre

Fred Khumalo Watching You
Productions like Sarafina!, set to feature at the Joburg Theatre, could woo a new generation of theatre goers, the writer argues. /SANMARI MARAIS
Productions like Sarafina!, set to feature at the Joburg Theatre, could woo a new generation of theatre goers, the writer argues. /SANMARI MARAIS

When critics say South African theatre is dead it is sometimes difficult to argue vehemently to the contrary, given the low numbers of people who visit theatres in various parts of the country.

Until, of course, we pause to consider the kind of productions that are being offered by the mainstream theatres.

I know mainstream theatres have to make money by trotting out tried-and-tested productions such as Ain't Misbehavin', Carmen and the like, which always attract audiences.

But what is being done to promote new local productions even if they don't make money immediately?

It is this gap that the productions of Gibson Kente used to fill. Single-handedly he gave us low-budget productions that resonated with the masses of the townships, thus developing, steadily and over a long period of time, people who loved, appreciated and supported theatre.

Those who grew up on Kente are old, and with the passing of the master himself not much has happened to fill that gap of developing new grassroots theatre that hits the spot.

Yes, the Market Theatre has tried to give us new productions that were meant to appeal to a younger generation; here I am talking about productions such as John Ledwaba's My Hole My Home.

Sadly, there hasn't been enough money to give such productions longer runs, with the view to resuscitating a theatre tradition started in the communities by Kente.

At the height of Kente magic, almost every township had its own up-and-coming theatre writer/director who tried to imitate the master.

I am invoking Kente in light of the fact that the Joburg Theatre will, as from this Sunday, stage a new production of Mbongeni Ngema's Sarafina!

I am delighted that this production, which was premiered at the Market Theatre in 1987, is back, with a new cast.

A new generation of theatre goers needs to be exposed to Sarafina! which, after a successful run in Mzansi, proceeded to have a seven-year run in the US, Canada and Europe, and was later turned into a movie.

Not only did it make Ngema rich, but it launched the successful careers of actors and musicians such as Leleti Khumalo, Dumisani "Crocodile" Dlamini and others. In creating Sarafina! the legendary Ngema, who was trained by Kente, adopted some formulaic touches from the master: throbbing music, snappy dialogue and lots of humour. In a word, a spectacle.

Some critics of the high-brow persuasion have argued that "people are tired of Kente and Ngema's song-and-dance" theatre.

To which I will respond: we have to remember that young people, who happen to be in the majority and are logically the target audience for new theatre, have many other spectacular engagements competing for their attention - music on the internet, dramatic Netflix series such as Game of Thrones and others.

If you want to gradually get them to divide their time between their existing preoccupations and this "new" thing called theatre going, you have to work hard. You have to be dramatic and spectacular.

I believe that once they get the hang of it, they will begin to demand more cerebral stuff. Many of us first got exposed to theatre through Kente's melodrama, and later grew up to demand more "substance" - everything from Zakes Mda's We Shall Sing for the Fatherland to Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden.

We need to breathe new air into the ailing corpus of local theatre.