Mbongeni Ngema
 Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe | Director Bokang Phelane | Make-up and Styled  by Kininirose | Location | Eyethu Cinema
Article by:  Mandisa Vundla

One cannot dig into the archives of the South African Theatre without turning the page to Dr Mbongeni Ngema and propelling his name towards the light. Being in Dr Ngema’s presence is like sitting in an old kept library, at the center of a knowledge pool, I am spoilt for choice and have so many questions and pages to turn –just not enough time to delve into all the chapters of Dr Mbongeni’s career, in just a day. I contemplate listening attentively as the book of Dr Ngema reads itself to me.

“I grew up you know, from a very humble and not well-to-do family.”  He begins to say. I am seated across Dr Ngema around a dining table inside the Eyethu lifestyle Gallery, beside the windows reaching out to Tshabalala street when I realize that the sun has been swallowed by the dark of night and we have spent an entire day in Dr Ngema’s Presence –oh what a delight, moving between wardrobe change, Make-up, and a trip to the long-standing yet frail and dilapidated historic Eyethu Cinema; taking Dr Ngema on a trip down memory lane.

“I grew up in Verulam and in KwaMashu township and picked up the guitar at the age of 11, I started playing. I didn’t know that it was going to become my profession, I just thought that I was entertaining people.”

When Dr Ngema’s father realized that his family was a talented bunch, he nurtured their passion and bought Ngema and his brother’s musical instruments. This opened the gateway for Dr Ngema’s creative curiosity to take form. He became a regular, playing at parties and weddings which excited the elderly people, to see this young boy at the tender age of 11, strumming the guitar. When he wasn’t tugging away at guitar strings, Dr Ngema was either herding his father’s cattle in deep rural Zululand or attending school just like the other children. When Dr Ngema completed his schooling, he struggled to find work and continued playing his guitar.

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“Until one day, Lucky Mavundla, who had written a play asked me to come and help him write music. I had never seen a play before. The play became successful, people loved the music and the play itself.” Says Dr Ngema. He began touring the townships with this little play, little did he know that this would later become a constant in his life.

It was around that time when he started touring the townships that he first encountered Gibson Kente’s work; and Kente’s play, ‘How Long’ blew his mind. That encounter is still a fresh memory Dr Ngema keeps. “It was fascinating to see this huge big cast of Gibson Kente’s and all the actors and singers and dancers and musicians; and I said to myself that’s what I want to do!”

His words became his actions and Dr Ngema held on to the promise he made to himself.  When Gibson Kente was in Durban working on one of his productions, Ngema approached the man he refers to as Bra-Gibs: a huge giant in the townships and all over South Africa. He walked up to Bra-Gibs and said: “I’d love to work with you. and in a not so serious manner he just said to me, oh, you can come to me. I asked where? And he said 1433 Pioneers Avenue, Dube Village.”

I am surprised how after all these years, Gibson Kente’s address still manages to flow effortlessly from bab’ Mbongeni’s mouth, the recital gives a hint of the impact Bra-Gibs has had on bab’ Mbongeni.

And without thinking twice, like a boy with irrepressible dreams, bab’ Mbongeni packed his bags and boarded a train from Durban to Johannesburg on a voyage to finding the infamous Gibson Kente. He left home without a trace, and without notifying his parents of his departure, in fear of their disapproval. He explains that the parents were “church-going people”, they weren’t so keen on their children pursuing the arts as a career. They thought he was only playing the guitar at home, “little did they know that that guitar would take me all over the world.” He says.

On a voyage to discovery, Dr Mbongeni recalls the accounts of his journey to finding Gibson.

I had never been to Johannesburg before but sooner or later I landed at Kente’s doorstep. I was asking all the way, where is Dube? When I got to park-station in the morning I had no idea where to go and someone said Plaform 16, no 2 I think it was. I went then and boarded the train to Soweto. I alighted at Dube station, I was careful not to ask anyone on the streets for help because I was not sure who may rob me and I don’t know the place. There was a group of young school girls coming towards me, I asked and I said, do you know where Gibson Kente stays? They said, on that side. I followed the direction until I landed on his doorstep.”

Where there’s a will, there is always a way, and Dr Ngema found his new path, and settled into his new life in Dube, Soweto, working and touring South Africa with Kente’s productions. His parents only caught wind of his whereabouts when they read about his work in the papers. When he finally visited home the money he made from touring with Gibson appeased his parents, they were only glad that his work was paying off.

Bab’ Mbongeni followed his dreams and as they grew larger he grew a thicker skin. He tuned into his artistic impulse, and fed the desire to produce his own work.

“ I must not lie and say it was easy. It was tough, there were rough times because of the life of an artist… You are never guaranteed a job, which is why we decided to create our own work, to employ ourselves. I did not only want to end up being employed by Gibson Kente but I wanted to compete with the rest of the world and among the best in the world.”

In the early 80s, while working with Kente, Dr Ngema’s dreams materialized when he and his friend, Percy Mtwa had an idea to develop and write their own play. Asinamali was inspired by the rand strikes that erupted in Lamontville township, where residents didn’t want to pay government rent increases “because in those years, we didn’t own our homes, we were paying rent to the government and the word that went around on people’s lips was ASINAMALI.”

The stage musical was well-received throughout the world. It debuted at The Market Theatre and became Dr Ngema’s first play to run on Broadway in Manhattan, New York City. He mentions some of the countries where the play was also staged, counting “America, England, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, I mean we were on tour for five years.” He says, in a low and mellow voice as if five years is nothing to brag about.

Beyond Gibson Kente’s teachings, Dr Ngema became scholastic, indulging in books about theatre methodology, theatre technique and theatre philosophy. He came across the works of many other scholars in the world, like Peter Brook and the Polish Theatre Director Jerzy Grotowski, who to date he notes is renowned the world over and is taught in universities.

“We studied those kinds of literature and when we did Woza Albert, people around the world started comparing our work with to that of Jerzy Grotowski. Little did I know that some years later I’d sit down with Grotowski and have dinner, and he would say to me, your theatre is great.”  I can feel Bab Ngema’s energy rising and i can tell that there is probably no greater compliment that compares to this.

In finding his own feet, style and approach to his own work, Dr Ngema inter-weaved his knowledge, merging Kente’s style of work with that of the Western Theatre Culture. He goes on to elaborate further the vast differences between the two.

“The point about Gibson… And not to put his work down, it’s actually praising his work. Gibson did not perform in proper theatres, Gibson’s work was performed in theatre halls and later at Eyethu Cinema. You can imagine how big Eyethu cinema is and without miking, without a proper sound system, without lights, Gibson’s work would project to thousands of audiences because he trained his actors to depend only on their vocal strengths to fill big halls. That was amazing because Western Theatre depends on all this sophisticated equipment. In the townships, we didn’t have that.”

Ngema paints a clear picture of the theatre environment in the townships back in his day. “You go to some church hall with wooden floors, and black people came late. Sometimes it wasn’t a mistake that they were late. It was because they wanted to come late and show off. Women would walk into the theatre halfway through the show and everyone would turn around to see how they’re dressed. Then the performance would have to be above the noise, with Coca-Cola cans rolling on the floor and all sorts of things. And when there’s an interesting character on the stage someone would shout from the front seats to his friend: ‘ahh that’s my friend, at the back, bheka ufana no malum’ sban sban!’ Black people are robust, we don’t keep quiet when we see something interesting. So kente’s work sustained the sea waves above all the noise.”

When Dr Ngema began to produce his own work, he borrowed the enchanting energy and magic from Kente’s technique, but he also incorporated the sophistication of the Western Theatre Culture.

“where people are properly miked with lapel microphones. We can light people properly on stage so a stage production looks like a series of perfectly photographed images of people. Those are the standards in the rest of the world.”

And Dr Ngema rose to meet and surpass those standards. His plays form part of the set-work in schools and universities, they are revived and performed religiously around the world, from Kenya to Washington DC, and back here at home. Prominent actor, Hamilton Dlamini acquired the rights to stage Woza Albert.

Dr Ngema estimates that his work, just like that of Shakespeare, will survive for centuries to come.

“My work will outlive me, 100 years from now, people will still be performing Sarafina. It’s fantastic to know that you’ve written work that will never die, that people can give it life beyond yourself.”

Dr Ngema’s plays may survive the centuries, but we both agree that the theatre culture in South Africa is under threat. I poke his brain a little for possible solutions and ways to keep the theatres sustained.

His answer redirects us to the importance of developing well-balanced actors and quality work . This is how he has managed to sustain his audience over the years.

The influx of young enthusiastic talent flocking into the industry, hungry for work is an exciting phenomena for Dr Ngema, but he warns against ignorance. “The downside to this is that a lot of those people don’t know how hard it is to work on a play that will have longevity, they think that if you rehearse for four weeks, that’s it! These young people who think they are actors and a lot of them are just models, they have never been trained in acting.”

He emphasizes that “acting has nothing to do with looking glamorous and beautiful because you are depicting a life of a people.”

In Dr Ngema’s words: “a well-crafted actor is a person who can portray any character and can be in any situation. In theatre, we call that kind of an actor a balanced actor.”

He points to The States for examples of well-crafted actors who are big on the screen but also understand the importance of going back to the theatre to nourish their craft.

“In film and television, if the take is not right you say cut! Take two cut! Take 17 cut! Take 35 cut! Whereas on stage, in the theatre, there is only one cut, you can’t repeat what you’ve said so your work has to be so perfect.”

Dr Ngema’s work is a testament to his words. Although he may prefer Theatre over Film, he has found a way to balance both platforms by re-adapting his plays into films, to immortalize his work.

Of all the work Dr Ngemahas produced, I ask “which production do you think you got right?” and he responds by noting “Sarafina.”
he says the film came out at just the right time, coinciding with the free Mandela campaign.

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Dr Ngema takes me to the beginning of the journey, back when Sarafina, was it was still an idea prompted my Mama Winnie Mandela’s words.

“Back when I use to live in Soweto, I was very close to the Mandela family especially Mama Winnie Mandela. Given The turbulence and the uprising in the mid-50s, I’d go with her to funerals because a lot of people were being killed by the apartheid army and the police. After a funeral in Dobsonville, I went to her house for dinner, I was standing and she was cooking in the kitchen and I said, mama, what do you think will happen to this country?

Mama Winnie replied despondently, saying: “you know Mbongeni, I wish I had a big blanket to cover the faces of the little ones so they do not see the bitter end.” 

That image stayed with Dr Mbongeni as he recalls driving out Mama Winnie’s house. “I began to hear voices in my head, images of young children singing ‘Freedom is Coming Tomorrow. This was the seed that was planted by Mama Winnie in my head and I decided, I have to write this play.”

When the play was completed, Dr Ngema asked Mannie Manim, who was the managing director of the Market Theatre then, for a chance to produce the play at the Theatre. Manim agreed and the play was staged. It garnered international attention and people poured in from all parts of the world to watch it. Dr Ngema signed a world tour contract for the play which he later adapted into a film, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Leleti Khumalo, Dr John Kani and Miriam Makeba.  The film was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical; Best Original Score and Best Choreography.

I ask the well-travelled patriotic Dr Ngema to advise on tools to help improve the industry here at home and without any hesitation, he says: “stop imitating Americans. Americans can’t do what we do, that’s why Sarafina, Black-Mambazo and Makeba will always stand out.

He is adamant about utilizing the arts to preserve and showcase our cultural identity. A practice he has been loyal to throughout his work. From Theatre to Film to Music.

It is that ideology that propelled Disney to contact him when they were searching for a vocal arranger, with an authentic African Sound for the Lion King (Disney’s animated film). It was Dr Ngema’s long-term friend Quincy Jones who advised the producers to reach out to Dr Ngema, saying: “The only person who can do that is Mbongeni.” Tom Schoemaker, contacted Ngema.

“I influenced them to come and record with my singers in Bob’s studios in Botswana, it was one of the best studios at the time.” Says a poised Dr Ngema.”

Dr Ngema has been on a consistent winning streak, my curiosity prompts me to ask, “what is it that you still wish to accomplish that you haven’t done?”
He responds by saying:”A Mbongeni Ngema Theatre, to nurture and develop the younger talent.” We will be here to watch that dream take flight and to see a new generation of actors grow under Bab’ Mbongeni’s wing.




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