Sello Maake kaNcube on latest play: Bloke and His American Bantu

Starring award-winning actors Josias Dos Moleele and Anele Nene, the story explores a simple friendship that led to international solidarity and cultural exchange between South Africa and Black America.  

Josias Dos Moleele and Anele Nene in the play Bloke and His American Bantu. Picture: Supplied.

JOHANNESBURG – “The story of Bloke Modisane and Langston Hughes is a timeless one. It is a story of brotherhood, of love and care between man and man. There is nothing as inspiring as seeing black men loving each other and allowing themselves to be vulnerable in front of one another. The camaraderie between these two scribes is something to be cherished and emulated,” said Sello Maake kaNcube to Eyewitness News.

The Sello Maake kaNcube Foundation brings Bloke and His American Bantu to the South African State Theatre (SAST) from Thursday, the 7th of July, to the 24th of July 2022, with performances from Tuesdays to Sundays weekly.

The play is written by prominent author Dr Siphiwo Mahala and directed by Maake kaNcube.

Starring award-winning actors Josias Dos Moleele and Anele Nene, the two-hander deftly explores a simple friendship that led to international solidarity and cultural exchange between South Africa and Black America.

“The story is also important in our historic moment. Next year, 2023, will be Modisane's centenary and also marks the 60th anniversary of his lecture in the US as well as the publication of his seminal text, Blame Me on History. All of these factors speak to the role of intellectuals and the importance of international solidarity in our broader struggle against apartheid,” said Maake kaNcube.

According to South African History Online Modisane was born on 28 August 1923, and grew up in Sophiatown, Johannesburg. His father was murdered and his sister died from malnutrition at a very young age. His mother ran a shebeen in order to provide the family with livelihood means.

Modisane wrote: My mother accepted her life, and I suppose, so did the other shebeen queens; they chose this life and accommodated the hazards. My mother wanted a better life for her children, a kind of insurance against poverty by trying to give me a prestige profession, and if necessary would go to jail whilst doing it." (Modisane, Blame Me on History )

According to the Poetry Foundation, Hughes was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance - the flowering of black intellectual, literary, and artistic life that took place in the 1920s in a number of American cities, particularly Harlem. A major poet, Hughes also wrote novels, short stories, essays, and plays. He sought to honestly portray the joys and hardships of working-class black lives, avoiding both sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes.

“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too," he wrote in his essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.

“I think the role of art in the fight against apartheid is best illustrated by Modisane's visit to the US. He crisscrossed the country, delivering public lectures, and mobilising people against apartheid. You would recall, for instance, that shortly after his visit to the US, Miriam Makeba addressed the UN and ultimately in 1966, apartheid was declared a crime against humanity” said Maake kaNcube.

The show relives the camaraderie that developed between Bloke Modisane and Langston Hughes, writers and activists from Sophiatown, South Africa, and Harlem in New York, respectively. The story is set in the 1960s, when Modisane was exiled in London, and Hughes through his contacts in the US, organised a lecture series for him in various states across the US. This 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.

“There are a lot of things that audiences learn from a play of this kind. For one, the importance of genuine friendships in our lives is one of the themes that come out strongly. It's important to have a friend whom you know will always have your back, and will keep believing in you the same way that Langston kept believing in Bloke until he got his breakthrough.

"Secondly, our freedom was not free. Men and women sacrificed their lives, were persecuted, banished and went to exile, leaving their loved ones behind. The life of exile itself was not plain sailing, as the like of Bloke illustrates. Lastly, because our freedom was not won on the battlefield, the role of thinkers, intellectuals and thinkers is bigger than we care to acknowledge,” said Maake kaNcube on what he wishes the audience takes away from the play.

Multi-award-winning theatre and television writer, actor and director, Josias Dos Moleele, plays the role of Hughes.

“I have worked with Dos Moleele before and I just knew he'd be most suitable for the role. He also bears strong physical resemblances with Langston Hughes," said Maake kaNcube.

The character of Bloke Modisane is channelled through exquisite acting by the little-known but highly talented Anele Nene, who hails from Durban. The 25-year-old Nene studied Performing Arts and Production and won the Ovation Award at the 2020 National Arts Festival for his one-man show ‘The Hymns of a Sparrow’.

“Anele Nene was a total surprise to me. We did the first round of auditions in Gauteng, and I was not convinced. We then decided to open it up and invited actors from around the country to send short video clips. When I saw Anele's clip, I knew we had found our guy. He is phenomenal. Audiences at the National Arts Festival were amazed by his talent. I am pretty confident that he will mesmerise audiences in Edinburgh as well,” said Maake kaNcube.

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.