AN UNDERSTANDING OF the contribution of South African theatre-maker Gibson Kente (1932-2004) to local stage history cannot but be an important addition to the reading list of any SA theatre lover. And accordingly, Robert Mshengu Kavanagh’s book A Contended Space tries hard to be everything to every reader with these priorities in mind. Sadly, he makes so many promises in this book that it is the legacy of Kente himself that ends up being compromised.
Arguably, Kente’s vision was central to the amorphous beast we recognise as SA township musical theatre. It vies from a European avant-garde reflection on narrative, audience and other formalities and weaves into the ideas of performance espoused by German 20th-century theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht. It’s independent and unapologetic, playing to majority audiences and influencing many significantly. Kente, who was a contemporary of writers such as HIE Dhlomo, RRR Dhlomo and Sam Mhangwane, penned political theatre at its richest.
“No”, shouts Kavanagh, arguing that there is a difference between political theatre and theatre for the people. And he’s entitled to his opinion. The thing is, whether you feel Kavanagh’s definition of political theatre is too wide or too narrow, becomes academic: the book is so riddled with writing errors you emerge feeling battered even if you’re a champion of Kavanagh’s approach.
The first great sin in this book is the omission of an editor (whose brief is the content’s flow) and a sub-editor (who fixes grammar, spelling, consistency and style). Instead, you get visual errors, spelling errors, errors in the language’s flow and errors in repetition that make what could have been a beautiful and informed read, tortuous.
This reflects a shoddy understanding of the final product: A Contended Space is not a blog post which can be fixed anytime: it’s the fruit of years of work. It bears the stamp of a publishing house. It’s meant to last forever. The least you deserve, as the reader, is attention to the visual presence of the thing to say nothing of the focus of the language.
And alas, as you feel roughly trod on by this book’s errors, so are you are offered promises which do not deliver: Examples plunge into too much detail too quickly, leaving your head spinning in an inchoate understanding of Kente’s work and influence.
Other detail is skirted around. When mention is made of an “Israeli who penned a play called Sola Sola”, for instance, you might be curious to know the name of this person, but nay, ‘tis lost among lots of facts.
Indeed, on the topic of facts in this book, expect to be assailed by them in the form of shopping lists. Armies of them. Pages and pages of references to plays with their dates of performance are shoved before your eyes – so many examples that the basic assertion they illustrate is lost. There is insufficient use made of footnotes in this material.
And all of this happens before you reach the focus on Kente himself. Indeed, you’re subject to four sections (that’s 11 chapters) describing what Kente is not. Granted, you do, eventually get to read his context, but this happens after more than 100 pages of comparison, contemporaries and other asides. One or two well-placed tweaks in the flow of this books focus would have turned it around.
Try as you might to go head to head with the density of the text, the third hurdle you encounter is voice. The writing slips between third and first person all the time. Yes, it’s a problem when the verb tense of the material is inconsistent; the casualty is clarity. But when suddenly Kavanagh himself pops into the thus far formal descriptive, historical narrative as a character – be it as someone in Kente’s audiences, or a fellow playwright in a given programme, festival or season – something else happens: it’s no longer clear who this book is written for or what it aims to be.
Is it an academic overview of Kente, the man and his work? If so, why is there a comment that goes “I’ll bet my bottom dollar that Kente’s house was robbed”? Betting of bottom dollars or clichés of this nature sit curiously with academic writing principles. Maybe A Contended Space is an informal overview of the man and his work, plus the author and his work? Maybe. This feels kind of in line with the crusading lines Kavanagh takes, writing about “white” and “black” theatre, and reflecting upon the injustices of apartheid in a reductionist capacity.
Wade through this and toward the end of the book, you will be rewarded with detailed readings of several key Kente works, including Lifa, How Long, Too Late and Sikalo. Here, you may want to heave a sigh of relief, but alas the problem doesn’t end: Kavanagh plunges head first into character analyses, offering great chunks of quoted text from the plays in question; he doesn’t really explain why. Is this book meant to be a textural analytic tome? Maybe, but it doesn’t do this convincingly.
The book’s final sin is the dismissal of the principle of ‘show and tell’ in the writing. Kavanagh tells you things about apartheid, about the challenges of theatre in the 1970s in South Africa, about Sharpeville, without showing you the broader trajectory. If you don’t know the basics of the history, you may well feel abandoned in a morass of roughly sketched scenarios.
But there is light at the end of this tunnel: the further into this book you read, the more developed its approach becomes, but you have to steel yourself against its focuslessness quite heftily. Ultimately, you emerge with a modicum of appreciation of the giant Kente was, but it’s a messy read, which could have been a fine contribution to Kente scholarship, under a good editorial pen.
- A contended space: The theatre of Gibson Mtutuzeli Kente by Robert Mshengu Kavanagh is published by Themba Books, Harare, Johannesburg, Cairo, London (2016).