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Saturday September 7, 2013 MYT 1:45:00 PM
Saturday September 7, 2013 MYT 2:07:17 PM
by david smith
James Ngcobo lands leading role at Market Theatre, which staged protest plays during apartheid era.
When he was cutting his teeth as an actor, the only place James Ngcobo knew equality was on stage.
“Towards opening night you sit with the director, getting notes, and then you look at your watch and you just know, ‘My last bus has gone, I can’t get back home’,” he recalls.
“I had moments where you finish rehearsals at night and you go with the white actors and have a glass of wine or two and go and sleep in the park because I didn’t drive then, there were no buses going back to the township and sometimes it was dangerous to go back to the township.”
Two decades on, apartheid is dead and Ngcobo has landed the most prestigious job in South African theatre. The 44-year-old Zulu is the new artistic director of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg.
Despite the venue’s celebrated history of protest plays during white minority rule, when it was known as the “theatre of the struggle”, Ngcobo is the first black person to fill the position full time. His appointment follows a prolific directing career that has included sitcoms, a festival spanning 14 European cities, a big-budget extravaganza marking the centenary of the African National Congress and a musical starring Hugh Masekela bound for Carnegie Hall in New York next year.
A workaholic who sleeps four hours a night, he was, according to insiders, the outstanding candidate by a mile.
But asked during a recent interview about the symbolism of his appointment, Ngcobo played down his importance. “It’s a daunting task because I’m reaching out to people,” he said. “I collaborate a lot with people because my mantra in life is that things that I can’t do are not a weakness if I know somebody else who can do them very well.”
Like any South African his age, Ngcobo’s youth was scarred by apartheid. He grew up in KwaMashu township, the 10th of 12 children, the son of a maid and factory worker.
He recounted: “During that mad time I grew up when townships were burning, but the one thing I remember about my childhood is just the love I come from. I lived in the same house as my mother and father and grandmother and they nurtured a love for words in me.”
But humiliations were engrained in daily existence in countless ways. “When we went to town during that era there were certain beaches where black people swam. My father would three or four times a year take me to town and he would buy me a Chelsea bun and orange juice. I remember as a kid wanting to play when I arrived at the park and my father would always say no, this is the boring part of the park, we must go up there, it’s nicer there. What I didn’t know then was my father was taking me to the black section and he just didn’t want to tell me this.
“I remember going to work and seeing a young white guy being completely rude to my father, who was a man that you didn’t mess with. These were things at a very young age that made one realise that something was not right. By the time I was around 10 it was that era when the ANC had intensified the struggle and were making this country ungovernable. I am of the generation that experienced those dark years.”
The Market Theatre was immersed in that history. It opened five days after the 1976 Soweto uprising with Chekhov’s The Seagull and caused uproar by portraying an inter-racial kiss in a 1987 Othello.
It nurtured collaborations between Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona such as The Island and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, saying things that could not be said in parliament or the press and raising anti-apartheid consciousness around the world.
Apartheid-era revivals still draw audiences to the Market whereas new works can be a tougher sell. Classics from the western canon are an endangered species, although Moliere’s The Miser was a surprise hit last year.
Ngcobo intends to build audiences in the Indian and coloured (mixed-race ancestry) communities and black middle class.
His plans are nothing if not diverse: including Steven Berkoff performing his Requiem For Ground Zero; David Mamet’s Race, a one-man show about Zulu identity; a Czech company’s adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank and a hip-hop act. He also aims to direct an opera and bring in a dance company from Zimbabwe.
“We need to realise that South Africa is a country that is in a continent called Africa.” — Guardian News & Media
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