Sophiatown

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10min880

I’m unsure of the context around Malcolm X’s words when he said “I believe in the brotherhood of all men, but I don’t believe in wasting brotherhood on anyone who doesn’t want to practice it with me. Brotherhood is a two-way street.”
But I am certain of how these words capture the genuine camaraderie between Bloke Modisane and Langston Hughes. The friendship between the two writers and activists from Sophiatown, South Africa, and Harlem in New York, respectively is explored in the Bloke and His American Bantu-a play currently showing at the South African State Theatre.

Written by author Dr Siphiwo Mahala and directed by renowned television and theatre actor and director Sello Maake kaNcube, the story is based in the 1960s when Modisane was in exile, in London England. Experienced thespian Josias Dos Moleele plays the character of Hughes with such swagger while young actor Anele Nene puts in a career-defining performance as Modisane. The play traces the intellectual discourse that transpired between the two scribes from 1960 to 1967, a period during which they exchanged well over 50 letters.

Langston’s Reverence of Africa and Its People

Langston was a revered American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist whose life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, who saw Africa beyond the drums and wildlife but appreciated the number of intellectuals the continent produced.
Throughout the play he fondly speaks of the Drum Boys-these were a group of writers for Drum Magazine during the publication’s halcyon days in the 1950s, which included Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba, Es’kia Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and Bloke himself. He insinuates that the rest of the world is sleeping on the brilliant minds that the South Africa has.

Langston travelled to other parts of the continent, exchanging ideas with other African intellectuals such as Wole Soyinka. This play showed his genuine affection for the continent.
Langston affectionately refers to Bloke as his favourite Bantu, this is quite significant considering the number of Bantus Langston came across. But his curiosity for and about Africa was fed by Bloke, whether it was language, people, or culture.

Josias Dos Moleele who plays the character of Langston Hughes. Photo by Tebogo Gama

Bloke’s Trials in Exile

Being an artist or a creative looking for work is stressful enough, but that pain is doubled when living in exile in the land of your coloniser. In one scene Bloke writes to Langston about his woes and in it, Bloke’s pain is palpable-it seemed as though he was nigh taking his life. “…All I know is that I’m tired, nothing I do is good enough. Things don’t change, yesterday is just like today and tomorrow will be just like yesterday. I don’t know man, sometimes I just want to go back to South Africa, at least there I was alive Langston! something was happening all the time. But here, here I’m just dead,” writes Bloke in the letter which Nene powerfully portrayed on stage. Bloke’s words speak to that double-edge-sword that is unemployment and being exiled.
In his response, Langston as any brother would, chastises Bloke for not asking for help.
“Blokey, don’t be simple-minded just be simple. Why didn’t you write to me if you’re having things so tough, you know I would’ve sent you a little something…and no, no obligation, you don’t have to say thank you or anything,” Langston wrote back.
This honesty from both men, enabled the strengthening of their bond.

Anele Nene. Photo by Tebogo Gama

Chemistry of The Two Actors

The chemistry between the two actors is palpable as they bring to life a slice of history that is little known about the bonds that connected the South African liberation struggle with black America. It shines the spotlight on the role of artists and intellectuals in forging international solidarity during one of the darkest hours in the history of South Africa.

 

Dos Molele with Anele Nene. credit Tebogo Gama

I imagine one of the most important things when doing a two-hander in any production, is the chemistry of the pair. Nene and Moleele’s combination epitomised Langston and Bloke’s friendship.
Sometimes when an experienced actor works with a young thespian, you cringe at the thought of the latter not being able to keep pace with the senior. But Bloke was channelled through bold acting by the talented Nene, who hails from Durban. The 25-year-old won the Ovation Award at the 2020 National Arts Festival for his one man show The Hymns of a Sparrow.

Moleele is multi-award-winning theatre and television writer, actor and director who has also appeared in international work such as Invictus directed by Clint Eastwood and a BBC television series Strike Back.
Moleele doesn’t just look like a grandson of Langston, but he also nailed the American accent without coming-off as a caricature. But beyond that, the actor made the audience feel Langston’s affection for Bloke.
It is by far the best play I have watched in years.

Bloke and His American Bantu runs from 7 to 24 July 2022. Tickets are only R130 on Webtickets, which is available at the SAST, in Pick n Pay stores, and online

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12min301617

Creativity, check. Technical astuteness and the ability to communicate ideas through design, check. Great visual awareness, check. There isn’t a prerequisite box that set-designers need to tick that Noluthando Lobese hasn’t. Being a hip black female and with a uniquely dope moniker like Hashtag Texture, she’s an off-kilter set-designer that tells stories authentically.

Lobese is currently the Art Director on the hit drama series, Vula Vala. The show is directed by Mandla N with Tiyane Nyembe as the DP (Director of Photography).

“Having an artistic leader as Mandla N, everyday was a wonderful challenge that my team and myself had to overcome. I think we really did well from transforming spaces to fit within our world to serve the story,” Lobese says.

As art director, Lobese created the world that the audience has been immersed in on the drama series. “From creating our own mealiemeal branding, newspaper branding and logo designs for the  soccer team ( Scorpions team) that includes banners, soccer balls and flags. It was all in the detail that can sometimes be overlooked by the viewer.”

Detail is imperative in this type of work, hence her nickname. “It definitely has to do with my work, telling stories through texture plays a great deal in my work. Texture is everything. It is authentic, through landscapes of texture stories can be told in an authentic visual aesthetic,” Lobese says of her nickname given to her by film director and friend King Shaft.

ALL SMILES: Noluthando Lobese. Photo by Zac Modirapela
ALL SMILES: Noluthando Lobese. Photo by Zac Modirapela

An award-winning designer, Lobese has been in the industry for over a decade now. She was introduced into the world of theatre by renowned set-designer Nadya Cohen.  “I studied fashion, however I’ve been lucky to have met Regina Sebright in 2008 at The Market theatre who introduced me to my mentor Nadya Cohen and James Ngcobo.”

“I design stage and costumes in theatre, production designer in commercials, TV and an art installation artist. I use my hands to create and mould materials that take a different form or shape. I call this work Mutation by using found materials, thread, and wool, plastic and other objects. Theatre and television is more collaborative, bringing a script to life through sets, locations, lighting and costumes. To be inspired and cautious of your surroundings plays a huge role in my work,” Lobese tells me.

Under the guidance of Cohen as set-designer and Ngcobo as director, Lobese made her debut as a costume-designer in 2009 in the production Thirst which was rewritten for a South African context and drew from Nguni mythology, which resonated with the past and the future.

Along with Cohen, Lobese credits Ngcobo for having given her opportunities to learn and immerse herself in the theatre world. “The Market theatre has been my school of design knowledge through the connections and collaborations I’ve made whilst there. Not so many directors are willing to give young designers / talents a chance like James Ngcobo.”

In 2008 Lobese studied in Stockholm Stadsteatern, Sweden as a design apprentice under the mentorship of Charlie Koroly. Four years later she was a designer in Salzburg at the Young Directors Festival as a production designer. She was accepted in New York, at the MacDowell Colony (NH) as an installation artist for work she developed while there, titled What It Is and it continued as an installation piece at Studio X, Johannesburg (GSAPP Columbia University).

OUT AT WORK: Hashtag Texture. Photo by Que Ntuli
OUT AT WORK: Hashtag Texture. Photo by Que Ntuli

She was an observer at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival (Cooperstown) New York. Lobese also worked on the Floating Stage (Bregenz Festspielehaus, Austria, 2013) as a design intern. She was part of the group of artists from ‘JHB Massive’ that went to showcase at The annual street festival in Accra, Ghana 2015.

Lobese is a consummate professional who has earned her stripes through her extensive travels, but even so, she says she still comes across people who don’t give her, her due respect as a working creative. “Being undermined especially the first time people work with you. It’s a constant struggle of convincing and proving yourself. Sometimes it’s because you’re laid back and do not feel the need to be dancing and sell yourself in the most basic way that the industry is expecting. I prefer the work to speak for itself and be given the freedom to create.”

She has a range of work and finds it difficult to say which stands out because the work is all unique, but said “Trapped that I costume designed in 2012, Salzburg Festspiele. It was directed by Zinzi Princess Mhlongo; It was also my first set design which was aired on SABC 1(Life is a stage) we had a crew of film makers (Born free media) documenting the behind the scenes process. A recent one is Rhinoceros which played last year at The Market Theatre.”

“I’ve designed most productions directed by James Ngcobo and have collaborated with various directors and other designers who are the best in the game. This involves working with friends and international collaborators”

Lobese spent her early stages of childhood in the Eastern Cape and then moved to Yeoville where she grew up. Being raised in a cosmopolitan space like Yeotown can nudge one into eccentricity and Lobese wears her oddness well.

She finds Yoga and shooting hoops as some of the best ways of unwinding. “I believe that I’m an inspiration to most people out there, I have not met most of them but they exist. I need a clear mind to keep moving forward and reach my highest, if I don’t do it I will never know how far I can bend my mind and remain fluid,” she says.

THA WOMAN BEHIND THA THA BRAND: Thando rocking one of her U Ts. Photo by Norman Maake
ROCKIN’ MY SHIII: Thando modeling her Unongayindoda Ts. Photo by Norman Maake

Unongayindoda, a term shoved at a girl who is said to be a boy-lookalike, has become Lobese personal task.

Unongayindoda is what I was called by the village community growing up in the Eastern Cape. Most Xhosa girls can relate to the term.  So Unongayindoda is a personal project and for the ones that can relate, I’m embracing the term. It is time we embrace shameful words that have been given to us through hate. The same way we have learned to love Soweto even though it was not by choice to vacate Sophiatown,”she says.


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