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Sello Maake KaNcube’s ‘Bloke & His American Bantu’ captures the ‘human experience’ of apartheid

Josias Dos Moleele as Langston Hughes in ‘Bloke & His American Bantu’. Picture: Supplied

Josias Dos Moleele as Langston Hughes in ‘Bloke & His American Bantu’. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 19, 2022

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As we finally approach the return of the full live version of National Arts Festival in Makhanda, after a two-year hiatus, we caught up with thespian Sello Maake KaNcube to chat about his latest production “Bloke & His American Bantu”.

The small town of Makhanda, Eastern Cape, will come alive once again when the music, arts and theatre fraternities reunite to showcase local and international talents at the 48th National Arts Festival, starting on Thursday, June 23, until Sunday, July 3.

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Written by the prolific author and literary critic Siphiwo Mahala, “Bloke & His American Bantu” will be staged at different venues around Makhanda from Thursday, June 23 to 25.

The two-hander follows the tale of two prominent intellectuals, Bloke Modisane, played by Anele Nene, and Langston Hughes, played by Josias Dos Moleele.

The play shines the spotlight on the role of artists and intellectuals in forging international solidarity during apartheid.

Josias Dos Moleele as Langston Hughes and Anele Nene as Bloke Modisane. Picture: Supplied

“The play is inspired by the brotherhood that developed between Langston Hughes, a famous American poet and activist of the civil rights movement, and Bloke Modisane, a South African writer, journalist and actor, exiled in London.

“The two had an intimate bromance punctuated with regular letters, exchange of gifts, occasional visits and partying,” elaborate Maake KaNcube.

“Through a regular exchange of letters, they minimised the distance between England and America, and metaphorically between apartheid South Africa and the civil society movement in the US.

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“The two struck one of the most iconic yet underrated transatlantic friendships of the 1960s.”

According to him, the history of the struggle has been told repeatedly over the years, but this story captures the human experience in the backdrop of the broader struggle.

“One of the most prominent themes is the role of cultural workers and intellectuals in the fight against apartheid.

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“It demonstrates how important the cultural sector was in mobilising international solidarity against apartheid.

“Most importantly, it shows us that artists have the agency to build relations between nations beyond what diplomats can ever dream of.”

He continued: “The true meaning of friendship comes across strongly in the relationship between the two.

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“They share intellectual banter, celebrate each other’s accomplishments, share each other’s frustrations and turn to each other at times of trouble.

“At some point in the 1960s, they sent each other several letters within a space of a week.

“When Modisane was destitute – unemployed and homeless in London, and even contemplating going back to South Africa where at least he ‘was alive’, it was Hughes who landed an ear.

“Similarly, when excited over something, they wanted to tell each other about their fortunes and celebrate together.”

The play also tackles the psychological effects of exile, when Bloke starts to miss his family back home.

Anele Nene as Bloke Modisane. picture: Supplied

As the director, Maake KaNcube says he was drawn to the production because the play is based on real lives during one of the darkest hours in the history of South Africa.

He added that this story of love and resilience will resonate with many people across the world.

“What struck me initially was the historical significance of this story and how it explores the ties that bind black people in South Africa and their American counterparts.

“What began as a simple friendship between two writers, grew into an intimate brotherhood that led to international solidarity against apartheid.

“As their relationship grew, they introduced each other’s acquaintances.

“It was through his friendship with Modisane that Hughes’s home at number 20 East, 127th Street, in Harlem, became a point of convergence for South African exiles, including Lewis Nkosi, Todd Matshikiza and Miriam Makeba.

“Makeba had just shot to fame following the release of the 1959 Lionel Rogosin film, ‘Come Back Africa’, where her musical talent was displayed and for which Modisane and Nkosi had writing credits.

“Hughes had embarked on a deliberate mission of rediscovery, trying to reclaim his black identity through reconnections with the African continent.

“As such, Modisane shared elements of the African cultural outlook, including sharing South African music records, teaching him some Zulu and Sepedi words and gifting him with African cultural garments.”

Josias Dos Moleele as Langston Hughes and Anele Nene as Bloke Modisane. Picture: Supplied

The former “Generations” actor says this play celebrates a platonic bond between two men that goes beyond friendship.

“I think we need to love each other more, support each other and embrace one another despite our flaws.

“There is a lot that men, in particular, can learn from the brotherhood between Hughes and Modisane.”

Maake KaNcube also shared his latest read, “The Land is Ours” and “Land Matters” by the same author, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi.

“These two books are a must-read for South Africans.

“What I can say about ‘The Land is Ours’ is that to dispel the maxim that ‘if you want to hide something for Black people, put it in a book’.

“This book needs to be broken down for the public’s consumption.

“If there is one thing that will make us understand who we are, and how we turned out to be what are now it is this book.

“The soundtrack of our lives should be a constant uninterrupted refrain of ‘Fighting For Our Land’.”

For more information on the National Arts festival, ticket prices and the full programme, visit the NAF website.

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