Gibson Kente, known as the “father of black theatre” in South Africa, died in Soweto November 6 after having battled AIDS-related infections for the past year. He was 73.
Kente created the genre of township theatre with the first plays that reflected the reality of the lives of the millions of oppressed blacks living in urban shanty towns during apartheid South Africa. He wrote of politics, crime, alcoholism, love, gangsterism and poverty in plays performed to enthusiastic support in community centers in the townships, giving hope, inspiration — and entertainment — to black people during the darkest days of apartheid.
His first play, created in 1963, was a musical aimed at township auds, “Manana, The Jazz Prophet.” This was followed by “Sekalo” (The Cry) in 1966, which after enjoying huge township support was introduced to and embraced by multiracial audiences.
He became best known for his vibrant musicals — a mixture of song, dance and comment on township life — which inspired the new generation of black artists who followed him.
His first political play, “How Long,” written in 1973, was a huge success but as Kente got more political he ran into trouble with the apartheid government, which banned several plays.
Kente was a flamboyant and much-loved personality in the black community, who became affectionately known as “Bra Gib” (Brother Gib), so his public disclosure of his HIV-positive status in February 2003 sent shockwaves through a community still largely trying to deny that the epidemic existed and where discrimination against HIV-positive people was still common. He was widely hailed for his courage in disclosing his illness, including by former President Nelson Mandela.