The South African State Theatre

Anele-Nene-with-Dos-Molele.-credit-Tebogo-Gama-1280x853.jpg
10min290

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

TSOGO.Credit-Mpilo-Zondi-1280x853.jpg
10min3540

This is an interview between Tha Bravado Editor Bonginkosi Ntiwane and multiple award-winning playwright Napo Masheane. The interview took place in late 2021 around the time when The South African State Theatre (SAST) presented TSOGO (The Rise of Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke), a biographical theatre play exploring the life and times of the iconic social and political activist Mama Charlotte Makgomo Mannya-Maxeke (1871 -1939). While the season of the play coincided with her date of death 16 October 1939, this piece fittingly gets published today on what would have been her 151st birthday. She was born in Botlokwa, Ga-Ramokgopa in Limpopo. She is the first black South African woman to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree and is the founder of the Bantu Women’s League in 1918.

Written by Napo Masheane and directed by thespian Mapula Setlhako, TSOGO which means rise or the awakening is a resurrection of one of South Africa’s Pan African, black conscious, and feminist pioneers.  “Yes! Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke must rise in all of us, so that all those who come after us can also rise from us,” Masheane says.

The moving play is told through seven actresses who are all also strong vocalists, intensely telling Maxeke’s expansive life before she even got married. The ensemble represents seven portraits of Maxeke, focusing on seven prominent milestones of her life, almost symbolizing the seven decades of her tapestry, against not just tradition and religion, but also patriarchy and politics. “Majority of the girls in the play, I’ve had the pleasure of working with before. And actually some of them have a musical background. So I had to mentor them into becoming actresses,” Masheane says.

The playwright: Napo Masheane. Photo supplied
The playwright: Napo Masheane. Photo supplied

The seven actresses are Hazel Mehlape, Zamachunu Mchunu, Tshepiso Madikoane, Thokozile Manakomba, Solani Maswanganye, Ncamisa Nqana and Katlego Tlokana. “People I tell stories about always choose who will best portray them on stage. As I always say; theatre for some of us is not just a church but it is a ritual practice and an initiation process of constantly telling her-story.” The chemistry of the all-female cast felt genuine, as though they were carrying each other on that stage, similar to how Maxeke carried some of her sisters in the African Jubilee Choir while touring abroad in the late 1800s. The premise of the story-arch draws on ‘Re-Birthing- Re-Imagining and Re-flecting’ on Maxeke’s her-story, which is echoed through the seven female voices on stage.

Tsogo cast
The Seven: These are the seven charlottes each representing milestone of the political activist Charlotte Mannya Maxeke. Photo by Mpilo Zondi.

“For every playwright before you write a play you have to flesh it out, you have to decide on the artistic treatment and approach. You need to imagine (from the page) who your character is, what do they want, need, seek and what could possibly be blocking them from that. Then you need to create a world (on stage) for them to exist in which is the defining premise for their existence. Hence in the case of Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke knowing that she lived almost to her 70s, I highlighted seven milestones that epitomised her journey thus in meeting the magic of theatre created seven voices through seven portraits, to be carried out by seven girls,” shares Masheane.

The actresses’ command of the rich Sepedi language was a marvel and through choral and Afrocentric melodies, TSOGO also suggests Maxeke’s imaginative childhood, her coming of age, her undying resistance and resilience, her bravery to travel the world as an artist (chorister) in persuasion of a dream to empower the black child.

Sitting there watching the play, I was personally taken aback and inspired by Maxeke’s story, that well over a century ago this black woman was actually the true definition of being woke. If it’s had such an effect on me as a man, you can imagine how much it would fuel women.

Seven charlottes each representing milestone of the political activist Charlotte Mannya Maxeke. Credit Mpilo Zondi..
Songbirds: The seven charlottes each representing milestone of the political activist Charlotte Mannya Maxeke. Photo by Mpilo Zondi..

“Whatever Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke experienced in the 1800s still hits home to most of us in the 21st century; so in imaging and knowing who she was I am able to articulate and reflect how all of us overtime (across different eras) are affected by patriarchal standards, political landscapes, academic settings, religious controversies, cultural and traditional norms that have no interest in our true existence. So, every interaction or immediate response during the performance affirmed that we all know, agree and fully understand hers and our journeys. She was us and we are her even today, period!” Masheane says defiantly.

In statement director of the play Setlhako said “Not many know about her as a creative during her life and activism in the 18th century. We need to set up unity of sisterhood in the arts fraternity, which will help raise the next generation of female artists to the next level. We need structures which will help shatter the ceilings of patriarchy and gender inequality in the arts.”

The production is now available for streaming on The State Theatre’s YouTube channel. Click here to watch


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