It was my second professional contract in 1973 when I was at the Arts Theatre in Great Newport St, with Unicorn Theatre for Young People. In the evenings the theatre was used for a series of outside bookings, and we’d get involved in these as casual staff. It was here I became involved with Temba for the first time. While I was a student I’d been aware of Alton Kumalo, as an actor with the RSC – intense and passionate, and with a strong African accent, he was noticeable in support roles, behind Judy Dench in Twelfth Night. Alton had put together Temba, a show set in a township, and showing the experience of a young black South African and his family. The show used a combination of story telling including drumming and dance, and I have a memory of a large cast trying to negotiate the postage-stamp stage of the Arts. The crush, and the vigour of the dancing, also contributed to the rather flimsy set being kicked, and I spent most of the first act on one show as a disembodied arm holding the thing up.
The next time in 1975 was in response to an advert – I met Alton and, as a response to my enthusiasm for the original show, was asked to be Company Stage Manager for a tour of The Bloodknot by Athol Fugard, a role for which I was too inexperienced. The show was a neat little two-hander, with Alton and Iain Armstrong taking the roles of mixed race brothers whose destiny is shaped by their different pigmentation. I picked the show up in Aberdeen, where Tim Albery (acting as administrator for Temba) had taken it, then to other venues including Motherwell and Ayr.
The following show was an ambitious tour, a revival of Caliban Lives by Richard Drain. The show had already been trialled at the Studio at Sheffield Crucible, but needed simplifying for a community tour. This was to go on a fortnight tour of one night stands, in university theatres such as Southampton Nuffield; and areas where there were significant black populations such as Handsworth, Toxteth, St Pauls in Bristol – all areas where there were serious riots a few years after. In Handsworth we played a building being converted into a community centre, still without windows and full of brick dust. Another venue, too small to contain the show, had a floor covered with beer cans and bottles.
The tensions within these communities were apparent at the time; I had doubts that the message of the play was right, urging black people to rise up and take revenge for years of colonial exploitation – Caliban as the image of the oppressed black man. This concern was shared by a member of the audience at the Mumford Theatre in Cambridge, who stood up at the end and accused the production of racism. A post show discussion ensued.
The cast again consisted of Alton and Iain, supported by another company member whose name I’ve forgotten, and an acting ASM called Grace. Live music was provided by Jabula, a four piece band made up mainly of South African exiles lead by drummer Julian Bahula. They went on to play with Mike Oldfield on Ommadawn, and were doing the odd gig on the side, including a May Ball in Cambridge.
The show then went on to play the Edinburgh Festival, at a fairly remote church hall shared with a music review group. Following coverage by STV on their festival show, audiences held up at around the 50-60 mark each night; but it became evident that the company was running short of money by the end of the tour. I became aware that the budgeting arrangements were more informal than was desirable; and eventually led to tensions that stopped me working with Temba. I think we were all quite naive at the time, in a way that might not happen now. Certainly I think my own lack of experience didn’t help the company at the time, though I’m still grateful for the experience.
Update: Alton died in 2013, aged 73. His obituary in The Stage can be found here.