658 Actor Dominique Gumede(Captain Van Donder) during rehearsals of the play Bopha at Bassline. 160812. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

For director James Ngcobo and his company Sibojama (with Hugh Masekela and Xoliswa Ngema), it’s all about producing works of heritage.

That’s why Percy Mtwa’s Bopha has been selected with Monde Mayephu’s The Pen, as the two Arts Alive theatre productions to open at the Soweto Theatre on September 1.

“It’s amazing that since it was written in the ’80s, Bopha has never been produced on stage again,” notes Ngcobo.

Curating the Arts Alive programme with Lesley Hudson, he was determined theatre should again take centre stage.

“Arts Alive has become a music festival with theatre sidelined totally these past few years.”

It should, he believes, be a festival about all the arts and with time to come, covering the country as well as the continent. He’s a strong believer in concentrating on strengths and building unity rather than trying to go it alone.

“Next year I will be checking out the theatre at the National Festival to see what we can import from around the country,” he says.

In the meantime, he’s rehearsing a play that is much tougher than he thought it would be. But, as always, he has done his homework.

He sat down with the author and discussed the play and was given the go-ahead to make it their own.

“We’re working with a script, not the Bible,” says Ngcobo, but as always he’s aware not to compromise the integrity of the work.

“It’s a living thing and the playwright gave me the nod to go ahead with my own production, not replicate theirs,” he says.

Casting is a Ngcobo touchstone and he’s brought in two big guns, Samson Khumalo and Siyabonga Twala, to tell the story of a father and son. It’s about the son’s battle with his life as well as the relationship between the two. He also cast two youngsters.

“I always remember my days as a young actor,” says someone who in his early forties still regards himself as a young director.

He also likes listening to the voices of the young.

“It’s a bartering process because we have to get to the language of the ’80s; it’s a period piece and must keep to the time.”

Ngcobo and his cohorts have been awarded a three-year contract by the city and already he is talking the bigger picture. “We have to focus on the fact that 2014 is 20 years into our democracy,” he says.

Next year is the centenary of the 1913 Land Act and that’s where he wants to turn his focus.

He’s talking mine dumps and plays dealing with land issues, but also getting playwrights to let their minds go to a specific place.

“I was shocked when I dis- covered cities like Amsterdam and Antwerp, that were involved with the anti-apartheid struggle, are already planning their 20-year celebrations! We need to be in conversation with our country,” he says.

That’s what he’s driven by when putting together these programmes. But that’s Ngcobo, the artist.

“I’d resent it if I was simply moving from one play to another.”

He needs more and with his huge interest in heritage and his desire to honour as well as celebrate the artists of the past, he keeps finding these neglected plays and reviving them for a new generation. That’s why he and his team talk about producing legacy works. He knows it’s all about telling stories and that’s all he’s interested in doing.

He wants to fling open the doors of theatres across the city and invite audiences in. “It’s never been an elitist thing,” he says.

Other productions he knows will bring joy to audiences is Lionel Newton’s Rats, especially brilliant because of his Pied Piper rendition as well as one of the National Arts Festival buzziest plays by an emerging artist Briony Horowitz, titled Owl. Add to that, Omphile Molusi’s much-lauded Itsoseng. Ngcobo knows how to reach wide.

Another production, The Mother of All Eating, is one of Zakes Mda’s earliest plays (first performed 20 years ago) very rarely performed. It is based in Lesotho and deals with post-democratic looting which makes it an especially relevant choice on many different levels.

It’s always easier to look at your own mistakes through the eyes of others. And to think when Mda wrote this. It’s directed by Makhaola Ndebele and stars Tefo Paya (actor) and Bernett Mulungo (pianist).

“The play also appealed to me because it was a two-hander, an actor and with the first performance, a drummer,” says Ndebele.

When he discovered a very talented pianist who could compose new music, he decided to switch the drummer with a pianist, and his actor, Paya, is a Wits drama graduate. He was excited about the writing, what the play was saying for today as well as the sparseness that meant it could travel easily.

This year’s Arts Alive had to happen in almost super-quick time. If this is what they come up with now, suck it in and mark your calendars for the next few years.

“It’s all about where we are at as a country and where we come from,” concludes Ngcobo.