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James Ngcobo: Mentoring young creatives will ensure the future of the arts in South Africa

James Ngcobo. Picture: Supplied

James Ngcobo. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 23, 2022

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Television and theatre practitioner James Ngcobo is leaving the Market Theatre after nearly a decade, to join the Joburg Theatres (JCT) as the newly appointed artistic director.

Ngcobo will be responsible for developing and implementing an artistic vision for JCT’s 10 spaces at Joburg Theatre, Roodepoort Theatre and Soweto Theatre, including the newly refurbished Jabulani Amphitheatre.

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In a recent conversation, Ngcobo said this new role will afford him opportunities to continue his vision of producing indigenous productions to audiences that wouldn't normally go to the theatre.

“The thing is, for me, when I curate work in these spaces, I am very cognisant, first of all, of the fact that it can never be about James, it's never about me, it's about who are we programming for, it's about the constituencies that the programme has to speak,” says Ngcobo.

“And the other thing that I'm very cognisant of, is that the theatre is a very beautiful space, to give visibility to everybody that is in this country.

“If you track the kind of stuff that I was doing, when I was at the Market Theatre, I created the visibility of the theatre in indigenous languages, where we did theatre ka Setswana, ka Sepedi, ka Sesotho and put the same effort into the theatre ya dipuo tsa rona (our indigenous languages), as we do theatre in English because they are languages, I put them all on a pedestal.

“This is why I’m not even a fan of the word vernacular, it's all languages, and what I have learnt from that thinking is that each of these languages represents a slice of life in this country.

“And they bring bums on seats of people who maybe at some point had never, ever come to the theatre. They come because there is something that echoes them, that looks like them, that sounds like them.

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“And that is the humility that always informs every decision that I get to take to just say, we are in this country, theatres should really echo how diverse we are,” he said.

James Ngcobo. Picture: Supplied

Commenting on his new role, Ngcobo says he is not naive about how difficult the journey he’s about to embark on.

“It's a daunting task. You know, to be able to programme 10 spaces and look after theatres that are in three different pockets of the city, that speak to different constituencies, and also be able to look at these theatres and say each one has always done this. But why can't he do that?

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“That is the question that I'm wanting to constantly be asking myself with a clear acceptance that this theatre has always produced this type of stuff. But what is stopping it from doing that other thing?” Ngcobo asks.

He says mentoring young creatives is what will keep the arts alive for centuries to come.

“Besides creating, my other passion, which is something that absolutely drives me, that I will have, no matter where I am…is mentorship. In the nine years that I was an artistic director at the Market, I had 45 young directors that I mentored.

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“Somebody once said to me, why are you so obsessed with mentoring young people and I said to them, ‘I don't have an intelligent word, the only answer I can give you is that it's logical.’

“If you are not able to pass the baton on to the young, you are a hoarder of information. You are a person with no generosity, you're a sad person.

“For someone who was mentored by other people, when I was young, I know what it feels like for somebody to hold your hand and say to you, ‘this is how it's done.’ And once you feel that feeling, you want to pass it forward.

“The idea of putting a seasoned voice in a room and an emerging voice in a room is something that I love because that is when the magic happens and I always say a good mentor is a mentor that knows that they have a lot to learn from a mentee.

“And it’s important for us as the older generation to be conscious of the fact that the young people are the future generation of the content creators. They are the future people who will be running theatres, who will be doing all sorts of things that are happening in the present landscape that maybe are done by people of my generation,” he said.

Ngcobo will take on his new role as the artistic director of the Joburg Theatres from July 1.

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