Men of letters: Mahala and Maake-ka Ncube team up again to stage ‘Bloke & His American Bantu’

Writer and academic Siphiwo Mahala’s mission when travelling locally or abroad is to visit a library in the place he finds himself in. In 2012, when he visited the US for the first time, he went to the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture in New York to learn more about the African American writer, Langston Hughes. Hughes’s poems, columns, novels and plays made him a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Mahala later found out that more archives of his idol were kept at Yale University in Connecticut. While there he accidentally bumped into information that most scholars in South Africa and the US were not familiar with.

“I was aware of Langston Hughes‘s connection with Es’kia Mphahlele. I knew that they had written exchange letters to each other,” he said during the interview at the University of Johannesburg Art Centre before the opening of his play, Bloke & His American Bantu, in collaboration with the Sello Maake kaNcube Foundation on 17 February. 

Siphiwo Mahala discovered Langston Hughes’ relationship with Bloke Modisane while travelling abroad. 

While reading Mphahlele’s letters he realised that every second letter made reference to Bloke Modisane, a South African writer, actor and journalist. He then asked for his files and discovered that Modisane had a closer relationship with Hughes compared with those the poet shared with other activists, intellectuals and artists.

“It was no longer just formal correspondence; they shared everything, including culture, in a sense that Langston used to send records to Bloke and Bloke sent him cultural garments. And he would even teach him isiZulu and sePedi words”. 

Modisane was in exile in London when they exchanged more than 50 letters with Hughes. They also phoned and visited each other during 1960 and 1967. Mahala was fascinated by the exquisite art of letter writing between the two. “They took letter writing very seriously and, over and above that, it shows the role of the intellectuals in mobilising the international community in fighting against apartheid.”

In 1963, Hughes organised a lecture series for Modisane to speak to American audiences about the conditions in South Africa, which resulted in him being invited to many different parts of the world. 

Sello Maake-kaNcube directs Bloke & His American Bantu, having worked with Mahala on his previous play on Can Themba

Bloke & His American Bantu took almost eight years of intensive research, but Mahala wrote it in three weeks. It is directed by the internationally acclaimed actor and director, Sello Maake-kaNcube, and is set in the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and delves into the friendships, brotherhood, emotional and intellectual ties that the black American had with black South Africans.

It features the multi-talented, 48-year-old writer, actor and director, Josias Dos Moleele, as Hughes. Moleele has appeared in two international films; Invictus directed by Clint Eastwood and a BBC television series, Strike Back

Modisane’s character is wonderfully portrayed by the young and equally talented 25-year-old Anele Nene, who won the Ovation Award at the 2020 National Arts Festival for his one man show, The Hymns of a Sparrow

The audience was captivated by the chemistry of the two actors, whose performance remains epic throughout. The emotions of the audience were awakened, as shown by the standing ovation at the end. 

The author and the acclaimed director first collaborated in 2017 when they did the one-hander, The House of Truth, written by Mahala. It depicts Can Themba’s life and stars Maake-kaNcube, who did a fantastic job. The author did his PhD on the story of Can Themba and is publishing a book on him next month, which will be his sixth book.  

When Mahala came back from his trip, he put an effort for these important materials to be repatriated to South Africa and they are now available at the National Archives of South Africa in Pretoria and at Amazwi South African Museum of Literature in Makhanda, Eastern Cape. 

“South African has, over the years, commemorated Black History Month in February and we adopted American plays,” said the emotional Mahala addressing the audience during the discussion. He added: “I can say with confidence that this is the first original South African play that celebrates our joint heritage between South Africa and America.”

Maake kaNcube said: “I think in doing these stories for me, it is revealing to ourselves that we come from a rich heritage of people with great minds and that part of us is not put on the table for us to see and appreciate.”

The play is on until 26 February and starts at 7pm from Tuesday to Saturday.

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Oupa Nkosi
Oupa Nkosi

Oupa Nkosi began taking photos in 1998 with a pawnshop camera, before enrolling at the Market Photography Workshop. He began freelancing after graduating and has since run community projects, won a Bonani Africa award, had his work selected for exhibitions in Zimbabwe and Japan, and been invited to international workshops. He began at the M&G as an intern and is now chief photographer. He also writes features for the paper and lectures at his alma mater.

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