With titles like librettist, writer, composer, director and theatre producer, Mbongeni Ngema’s titles signify about four decades of work, a commitment to storytelling and moving mountains one production at a time.
Upon meeting Ngema hours before the Joburg Theatre premier of Sarafina! – one of his most acclaimed works – he looks sharp in a navy blue pin stripped suit. uMadlokovu (Ngema’s clan name) does not look a day over 40, in fact he’s very mild, and polite, something that immediately catches me off guard, but allows me to relax enough to have a decent conversation with him.
As we begin our chat, I grabbed the opportunity to clear up a controversy that has bugged many people I know. Ngema is very aware, as he was all those years ago when he wrote the original township lovesong Stimela sase Zola, that there is no train station in the township.
He explained with a chuckle, that belies that he’s probably had to answer this question a million times before: “It was an imagination thing.
“I was saying that I loved this woman so much, that I would even buy her a train, to go to her hometown in Zola, even though they have no station.”
Part of me believes that as an entertainer Ngema has had to answer so many other questions like these because of the way he has approached his storytelling, expressing a great love and respect of things, or places or people, but still managing to insert just that small amount of humour to complete the package.
I pick his brain about what, in the over 40 years he has spent in the creative industries, has been his biggest lesson. “Focus,” he says.
“Never to lose where you want to get to. Keep your eyeball there. No matter how difficult it is to just keep focused on that dream,” he said.
In such a time, when the arts are not given the respect they deserve, it makes it much harder to keep the goal in mind. But Ngema said the best solution was to soldier on. To keep trying to push the arts even when it’s not so easy to.
According to Ngema, one of the ways to tackle the worrying state of the arts in the country, particularly the disconnect between theatre makers and their audiences, is to create content that appeals to them, but is also respectful of them.
“In my shows, audiences are always packed. I think other artists disrespect audiences, we give people work that is half-baked. In this day and age where there is so much to choose from, so many channels on television, why must I go to the theatre to see a half-baked show?
“But if I know, as an audience member that I trust this brand, for instance my grandmother used to send me to the store to go buy her the green Coca-Cola, something that signalled brand trust from her side, it’s a similar thing for audiences.
“Maybe it’s because I come from a different generation where we were fighting a liberation struggle, and we were trained to use the theatre that while it was dealing with heavy political subjects, it was to be entertaining.
“This was so that people who had nothing to do with our struggle in London, for instance, still want to buy a ticket,” he said.
The brilliance of hearing such from Ngema is that he has put his money where his proverbial mouth is – examples of his works Woza Albert, Asinamali and Township Fever have achieved this, after having been seen by thousands of people both locally and abroad, and served to conscientise the locals while entertaining them, and rally the internationals for support while entertaining them.
“The message in that way becomes universal, it becomes palatable. People will easily say ‘Wow, you have to see that show’.
“Last week I had the opening of my film Asinamali in New York, and the reviews that came out of that were ‘Wow! Its as fresh as it was 30 years ago’. If you can get such responses out of people, they learn to trust your brand in that way, then you know you’ve captured their hearts and minds,” he said.
Ngema also lamented the lack of interest of younger theatre makers to interact with their generation for a skills transfer of sorts. Ngema, speaking in another interview, explained how at the beginning of his career he’d sought out Gibson Kente to learn from him.
“It is so unfortunate. I’ll go and see a show, then I’ll say to a young writer or director ‘I’d like to come and help you’, and you just see in their faces that they don’t want (your help).
“When I went to Kente, I stayed in his garage for three months without a job. Ultimately when he came to see me I said ‘The mistake you’re making is that you think I’ve come here to ask for a job, I have not. I have come to you to learn’.
“I’m saying this because it pains me the younger generations don’t want to come suck this knowledge which is so available. I won’t charge them, it’s not in me. I learnt it from somewhere myself,” he said.
With Sarafina! Ngema said he was humbled that the people had not grown tired of his work. Even children born after 1994 are singing ‘Freedom is coming tomorrow’. And so for as long as I live, I will give it to them.”
After 32 years, it still feels the same to him.
“I’ve often said, don’t change the taste of what people like. You may become clever and add other ingredients but find the thing has become distasteful. Give them what they want.”
Ngema is currently working on a musical on former president Nelson Mandela, a play to commemorate the life of Tata through the eyes of an artist.
“It’s a labour of love, I’ve been talking to the family, especially uMam Graca, the Mandela Foundation, doing the research. Most importantly, I’m writing a song, based on the Trafalgar Square speech Madiba made.
“The title of the song is It is now in your Hands. It’s going to be like the We are the World of Africa. I have spoken to artists like Salif Keita, Angelique Kidjo, Khadja Nin and a lot of African artists who will collaborate, saying ‘Thank you Madiba’, with this piece.
“It will be released in November this year, and the musical in April next year.”
When asked what he believes his legacy is, Ngema said: “I hope I can find a building in Johannesburg that I can convert into a theatre and training centre for artists – the Mbongeni Ngema Theatre.”
From this answer one is able to see that all he’s ever envisaged is giving back to the communities that have given so much to him.
* Sarafina! is now on at the Joburg Theatre until June 25. Asinamali will be in cinemas in August this year.