One of the most prominent black actors in Britain, Alton Kumalo became disillusioned with the minor roles he was offered by the Royal Shakespeare Company and so started his own company, Temba, which means “hope” in the Zulu language. Much of the work of Temba, the first black theatre company to receive an arts council grant, denounced racism and apartheid in South Africa.
Kumalo, the son of a carpenter, was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and moved with his family to South Africa in the late 1950s. To please his parents, he studied medicine, but, while appearing in school plays, he realised he was increasingly being drawn towards the theatre.
At the age of 19, he came to London and almost immediately found himself appearing on the West End stage with Miriam Makeba in what was termed a jazz opera, King Kong, which portrayed the life of a heavyweight boxer, Ezekiel Dlamini, who came to be known by the eponymous nickname.
With the help of the arts council, Kumalo was then able to study for three years at the Rose Bruford drama college. After some radio and television work, he joined the RSC, appearing in Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar and The Winter’s Tale.
But, as he told an interviewer, he was dissatisfied: “For about two years, all I ever played there was messengers. I got tired of playing the same roles because they are limiting. So, I made a very vocal protest. But they argued that Shakespeare did not write black roles and that there were not many blacks in England in Elizabethan times.”
Kumalo founded Temba in 1972. His productions included Mr Biko, the story of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody in South Africa at the age of 30, and the British premiere of Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead.
In 1984, Kumalo was replaced as Temba’s artistic director, but the company disbanded in 1992 as a result of the withdrawal of arts council funds. Five years previously, Kumalo had appeared in Richard Attenborough’s film Cry Freedom, an account of the journalist Donald Woods, who was forced to leave South Africa after he tried to investigate Biko’s death.
Alton Kumalo, who was born on December 29, 1939, died on August 30, aged 73.