James Ngcobo driving the artistic vision of the Market Theatre to the future

By Edward Tsumele

When James Ngcobo, the now famous actor and legendary theatre director paints a picture of the place where he was born and raised, Kwamashu, a township in Durban, you start to realize that this is a story worth a feature length film and a stage production.

Besides the normal features that defined many South African townships, especially during apartheid, such as grinding poverty, hustling, single parent households, hunger and interestingly and ironically successful township businesses and solid model families, it is crime that this township in Durban has for years been notoriously known beyond the confines of the KwaZulu-Natal Province.

“KwaMashu of the past was very notorious for one thing, and that is crime, and I can safely say that at the age of 10, at that stage in my life the township that I was born in, was the most dangerous township in the whole country,” Ngcobo says.

The truth is such environments of crime and grime tend to suck in many a youngster into its toxic web of crime and poverty. But not Ngcobo.

From the bowels of that crime and grime situation, Ngcobo not only emerged to become one of the most popular actors in film, TV and stage, but today he is at the pinnacle of his artistic career, driving the artistic vision of arguably the country’s best known theatre institutions, the Newtown based Market Theatre where he holds the influential position of artistic director for the Market Theatre Foundation, in charging of programming its several venues and spaces, in a way giving soul to what would become just brick walls with stages, lights and seats. It is the artistic director who gives the venues the oxygen to breathe and an identity.

Ngcobo has also remarkably crafted an expansive art career by going beyond acting, by teaching himself to also write and direct plays, and he has become such a formidable success in these areas, especially when it comes to directing some of the much-talked about plays in South Africa over the years, without the benefit of a university education, such many of his contemporaries have had.

He credits his artistic growth to a number of people he came into contact with as he grew up in KwaMashu, particularly Atwell Namba, his neighbour in KwaMashu.

But first what triggered the interest in the arts for the young Ngcobo, are the works of his namesake extremely talented American writer, James Baldwin, whose writing insightfully dissected American society and its often volatile relationship with its  black citizens several decades ago, before even the now famous Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) was even a concept in an intellectual’s imagination. It is this love of the written word that drove the young Ngcobo in the direction of his actor neighbour Namba.

“In many ways I owe my theatre education to him  (Namba) as I did not have the privilege to go to university to learn. Atwell was a neighbour who always took me along to go and see plays at the then University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal) where he acted alongside white actors at a time when we never even thought that was possible. He was the first black person to graduate with a drama degree from the University of Natal. Later on in life I also met and learned a lot from people such as Thami Venturas, Sarah Essa, and Nicholas Ellenboggen. That was my university education, learning from these great people,” he proclaims with pride.

And this clutch of people’s theatre lessons indeed did not fall on deaf ears because the truth is Ngcobo has grown in the arts in general and in theatre in particular, to become  one of a few crops of black theatre directors whose efforts in creating a vibrant theatre scene around the country’s theatres are not going unnoticed.

As the first black person, and at 43 the youngest artistic director to be appointed to this position in the history of The Market Theatre, all eyes were on Ngcobo since his appointment in 2013, beating many an applicant to the position, many of whom held superior academic qualifications to Ngcobo’s high school education and only backed by lots of theatre experience, a vision and determination to leave his footprint as a director at one of the most important theatre institutions in the country . 

Lulu Mlangeni – who first directed her first piece ever at the Market Theatre

It is that that must have persuaded the Market Theatre Council to give him the nod instead of his fellow competitors to the position. And this position comes with huge responsibilities and demands when it comes to programming. After all the Market Theatre has a history, very proud history whose historic role extends beyond the artistic, but the political as well, due to the way in which it was started by visionaries, the late Barney Simon, its first artistic director and well respected arts administrator and theatre producer Mannie Manim in the politically turbulent 1976.

With its liberal ethos the theatre not only defied the apartheid system of segregated audiences at theatres, it went further and further allowing black and white actors to perform side by side, and produced the kind of theatre that gave the apartheid policy makers and National Party politicians who were in government then serial headaches. During these times, it was uncommon to have some seats taken clandestinely by Special Branch security police just to make sure that , lines were not crossed. However many a line was crossed, anyway.

Politically charged plays such as Sizwe Banzi is Dead, The Island, Egoli and many others that became known as Protest Theatre, formed the core of its theatre menu and hence the theatre’s recognized role in the liberation of the country.

And so with that kind of history, it is reasonable to expect a lot from its artistic director, especially someone coming to fit in the shoes of theatre colossus such as Simon and Malcolm Purkey, a well respected drama professor from Wits, whose big theatre shoes Ngcobo had the an unenviable responsibility to fit when he was given a nod for this plumb job as its first black artistic director.

This is a huge responsibility in theatre as one has to play several balancing acts, crucially including that not only should one programme relevant plays that maintain the theatre’s loyal patrons gained over many years, but put up shows that attract new audiences.

Also it is expected by the audience that somehow because of its history, the institution must continue to play a role in highlighting social issues of the day that continue to affect ordinary people in a democratic South Africa. Balancing all these dynamics takes a genius in programming, and sometimes that means getting into uncomfortable turfs such as politics even in a free democratic South Africa.

“Theatre as such, looks at the whole tapestry of its immediate environment, especially the social conditions of the people and collapse that tapestry onto stage, and yes, when that happens, it becomes inevitably political.

“This job I have as artistic director of the Market Theatre, is the most difficult thing I have ever done in my arts career. Every single day and night  I have to think and dream the Market Theatre,” he tells me in an interview.

Though Ngcobo says it is the most difficult thing he has ever done in his career, but when things go right, as they have been for him for the past 7 years at the helm of the theatre’s artistic programme, praise and acknowledgment must be given to the man for a job well done so far.

For example last year he was recognized by the Standard  Bank Joy of Jazz, alongside other people including Nikiwe ‘Niki’ Sondlo,  coincidentally a neighbour to the Market Theatre in Newtown, who runs that resilient jazz venue Niki’s Oasis, for their contribution to jazz in Newtown.

Ngcobo’s Joy of Jazz recognition was for programming jazz shows on the Market Theatre’s venues while that of Sondlo was for keeping live jazz alive at her venue under extremely difficult conditions such as lack of corporate sponsorship for live jazz and difficult economic conditions hindering audiences’ ability to attend and pay for live shows.

Not only has Ngcobo’ as artistic director steered the ship into rewarding terrains, he has actually excelled in several and yet risky areas.

For example, Ngcobo bravely introduced theatre in indigenous languages such as seSotho, , seTswana, Xhosa  and Afrikaans over the years, and quite remarkably audiences did not stay away as this is a new area to go into in the history of the institution.

He tells me that next year If and when the restrictions related to the Covid 19 are no more there and theatres can open proper once more, he has more in store for audiences when it comes to indigenous language theatre on the stages of the Market Theatre. This must mean that the ones he has introduced so far were a success.

Talking about the current situation of difficulties to operate normally for theatres and other arts events due to Covid19 and its applicable restrictions to curtail the spread of the virus and infect people, The Market Theatre closed  its doors to audiences, but shows still go on using new innovative technologies such as Zoom interacting with audiences successfully.

For example, within three days of President Ramaphosa announcing lockdown in March, Ngcobo had spoken to 45 artists to take part in a recorded campaign called Theatre will Rise Again.

“Even during the lockdown, we have managed to put up some shows on the virtual world, including the recent Shakespeare monologues  Chilling with the Bard, an Online Sahespeare Season, that saw some of the best talent in local theatre delivering their lines virtually, and the experience was delightful.

“We have a tagline that says: we might be closed but stories are never on pause!, and so we have managed to engage and pay over 70 actors, lighting designers set designers and other theatre professionals during lockdown. That is important because it meant that people were still able to earn a living during these difficult times.

But it is in introducing indigenous plays at the theatre that seems to be pre-occupying Ngcobo the most these days, and he has a lot to say about it.

“In fact these plays became successful, attracting audiences that never came to theatre in the past, from as far as Lesotho, Benoni and Roodepoort, for example. These are people who before we put up these plays would not point out to you on the Johannesburg map where the Market Theatre is. That is very important because in as much as we need to retain the traditional market theatre audiences, we also need to attract new audiences and therefore need to be brave and put up new plays that have not been put up before,” he says.

 The plays the legendary director is talking about included in Afrikaans: Karel se Oupa – directed by Andre Odendaal, As die broek .Pas -.directed by Marthinuss Basson, Dop.- directed by Sylvaine Strike, Plant vir my n boom Andre- Jan, Kamphoer – directed by Lara.

 African indigenous language plays Ngcobo programmed include  Lepatata,  a Setswana play – written by Moagi Modise, Tau is directed by Momo Matsunyane and Thabiso Rammala, Mosadi o, Ntate etla hae, directed by Makahaola Ndebele, Eqhudeni- Isithunzi – a Xhosa play directed by Sipho Zakwe, Xova, Ntathe kgotlela and Dikakapa.

From Left: Francois Jacobs directed Brothers, Mmabatho Monthso who directed Frontiers and Luthando Mngomezulu – who directed Nailed.

One of his most successful programming endeavour  in the past seven years was to bring US plays to the stages of the Market Theatre to mark Black  History Month,  and these plays that grace the Market Theatre stages every year have been warmly received by South African audiences, and not only because they demonstrate similarities  between  black Americans and South Africans with regards to shared history and aspiration for self-determination under oppressive systems, but also reflect on daily struggles ordinary people grapple with in both countries till this day. One of the most outstanding plays he brought from Broadway to the stages of the Market Theatre includes One Night in Miami written by Kemp Powers (2018).

From Left: (top) William Harding, Lesedi Job and Palesa Mazamisa

From Left: (bottom) Young theatre director Dominic Gumede and Gopala Davis

Another area Ngcobo is praised for in theatre circles is to think beyond the borders of South African and look out for new theatre experiences and perspectives from the African continent.

In this regards he has either featured plays from other countries from the continent, such as Fisherman, a Nigerian play….or cast South African actors to perform not only characters in these plays but actually speak in the languages from the continent, for example  in Yoruba a language in Nigeria.

As also an exercise to tap into other audiences beyond theatre, Ngcobo for the past eight years has partnered with Eric Miyeni the producer of Rapid Lion, an international film festival, which since it launched has used the Market Theatre as its home, attracting a cinema audience that gets to be introduced to theatrical productions happening at the theatre during the festival.

Besides programming, Ngcobo is also well respected for grooming and mentoring young directors, and those that have benefitted from this include exercise include Lesedi Job, a female director who is destined for great heights as a black female director in this country and so far her directing credits are something to celebrate, having directed among others theatre doyenne John Kani.

Palesa Mazamisa, Dominic Gumede and Mmabatho Montso, who directed Frontiers, a Pan African play written by Bobby Rodwell and which was staged last year, Wiliam Harding, Francois Jacobs and Luthando Mngomezulu, are some of the new directors that were given an opportunity last year at the Market Theatre.

And so Ngcobo is indeed a busy man with his demanding job at the Market Theatre. Does he find time to do anything else besides this?: The answer is indeed yes. Last year he acted the character of President in Queen Sono, which also featured  Pearl Thusi, and he is also involved in the second league of this Netflix production which will soon grace the big screen. But Ngcobo’s main focus remains driving the artistic vision of the Market Theatre into the future.

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