The Playgoer: Zakes Mokae

Custom Search

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Zakes Mokae

The wonderful South African actor Zakes Mokae has died, prompting a welcome reflection on both his long career with playwright Athol Fugard and just the heroic political nature of being a black actor under apartheid.

Bruce Weber's NYT obit relates an amazing story:

After “The Blood Knot” [Fugard's 1960 play] opened in London, Mr. Mokae was barred from returning to South Africa. He did not return until 1982, when he learned his brother James was to be hanged for murders committed during a robbery, though it was unclear whether James was present during the killings. Mr. Mokae, who learned of the death sentence on the night he won his Tony Award [for the Broadway Master Harold and the Boys], returned to Johannesburg in time to witness his brother’s execution.
Mokae's moving performance as Sam in Master Harold--one of many roles written for him by Fugard--is thankfully recorded on video in the 1985 HBO version--if you can still get a copy on VHS. This definitely deserves a DVD release--if for no other reason to remind folks he did more than play voodoo men in Hollywood movies. (Including, yes, Vampire in Brooklyn.)

But hey, glad he made some money. And glad he finally made it home to a free South Africa, shortly before he succumbed to Alzheimer's:
Mrs. Mokae said they moved back to South Africa in 2005, while his mind was still mostly intact, “so he could live under freedom there and have some memory of it.”
Another playwright admirer of Mokae's was August Wilson, who wrote the role of the vengeful shaman Hedley in Seven Guitars for him--and Mokae actually originated the role in the Boston pre-Broadway staging. Unfortunately, he was not well and struggled through the tryout and was replaced before the show came to New York. I was privileged to see him in it in Boston at the time, my only chance to see him live.

1 comment:

Travis Bedard said...

Many performers have presence, Zakes Mokae had GRAVITY. Even in his silences he pulled you in.

Would that I could have been in the house for any of those Fugard shows.

And find me the theatre that is Dangerous enough that its lead gets EXILED for performing and I will buy season tickets right now.