Thembi Msthali-Jones as Khulu. Picture: Val Adamson

After an absence of 45 years, Gibson Kente’s musical drama, How Long?, returned to the South African stage this month at Durban’s Playhouse Opera theatre – and I joined a number of other VIPs on the opening night.

How Long? is considered to be one of Kente’s most political plays ever and is a melodramatic musical play with political undertones, written in his famous township theatre style. It is based on the death of Khulu, a helpless grandmother, who was removed from her home through brutal police action under apartheid bureaucracy.

Kente wrote the play in response to pressure from Black Consciousness structures that all cultural work needed to reflect the material conditions of black people in South Africa. Kente rose to the occasion and How Long? exploded in township halls and the black masses responded. The play was later banned and Kente was imprisoned as a direct result. Part of a trilogy of the only political plays produced by Kente, the work was written and last performed in 1973, before it was banned.

How Long? stars Thembi Mtshali-Jones, Phindile Gwala, Khaya Dlala and Mondli Makhoba, and is directed by Duma Ndlovu with choreography by Somizi Mhlongo. I decided to take my mother along with me. As a 61-year-old black South African, I imagined the play would mean a lot more to her now that she lives in a democratic society. And, boy, it certainly did! From the the opening scene to the dramatic closing of the production, my mother had something to say about everything. The story itself depicts township life in the best way possible.

Mondli Makhoba as Twala and Phindile Gwala as Nompi. Picture: Val Adamson

Khulu lives on a street where everyone knows everyone, where children play outside together, where mothers enjoy some gossip time while walking together and where fathers all return home at the same time from work. Khulu, played by Mtshali-Jones has a grandson, Afrika, who is played by Lungelo Ndlovu. Unlike other children in the township, Afrika attends a boarding school in a different province and, after passing with flying colours, he returns home to find apartheid police terrorising his street.

Young Afrika, like many others at the time, has had it with the government and is ready to rebel, much to his grandmother’s fearful dismay. We are also introduced to Afrika’s father, Twala, who is played by Mondli Makhoba. He is a hard-working man who only wants what is best for his son. After losing his job, he is unable to help his mother (Khulu) pay the rent on their government house. After weeks of harassment by the apartheid police, Twala is sentenced to jail for possession of stolen goods, leaving his family destitute. After she is evicted from her house, Khulu dies and her body is only discovered when Twala is released from jail and returns home.

Every time the police harassed someone for their pass (dompas), my mother said: “We could not go anywhere without that; see how they are about to arrest Afrika for not having a Joburg pass – they used to do the exact thing to us.”

I always say that you never know the extent of something until you experience it yourself, but this production – with my mother’s added commentary – and so many others really put in perspective how people of colour suffered under apartheid.

This is, of course, no secret but the resilience of young black South Africans at the time still lives within young South Africans today, who are still fighting for freedom. The cast, dancers and singers all did an amazing job.

It was also refreshing to see popular Uzalo actor, Khaya Dladla, play a role other than the flamboyant GC who we have come to love. Dladla plays Bhatata, a young man with a huge love for the ladies.

How Long? ensemble cast. Picture: Val Adamson

'How Long?' runs until 27 May at Durban's Playhouse Opera Theatre.