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Zakes Mokae biography

"Zakes Mokae paid some very heavy prices for working with me.
I mean there were days when I had literally to cradle his body
because he had been beaten up and kicked around by policemen."
(Athol Fugard in talk at Signature Theatre production of Blood Knot, 2012).

Zakes Makgona Mokae was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on 5 Aug 1935. You always hear me tell the story of how my parents don't know what it is I do because there is no word in my language [Setswana] for an actor. The closest word is "to play". So I tell them I play and they say "A big man like you and all you do is play?"

Mokae attended St. Peter's Anglican school in Rosettenville, where he came to know the Superintendent, Father Trevor Huddleston. Mokae started as a saxophonist playing in the Huddleston Jazz Band, an initiative of Trevor Huddleston "I spent about a year begging instruments. I hadn't got any money - I had to beg the money as well as the instruments. And gradually we built up a really first-class jazz band". Hugh Masekela most famously played in it.

Mokae married Madelyn, they divorced in 1978 and remarried seven years later.   Mokae had a daughter from a previous relationship. (Denis Herbstein in The Guardian,  10 Nov 2009).


After meeting Athol Fugard, a then unknown white playwright, Mokae took up acting. He and Fugard worked together creating new plays that reflected the situation in South Africa of the time. Fugard had in Mokae an actor able to carry the intelligence and emotion required in Fugard´s work. Blood Knot, performed by Mokae and Fugard, was the first masterpiece to attract world attention.

The apartheid regime blocked his acting career in South Africa so he went to London in 1961 to study acting at RADA and the British Drama League, and appeared on the West End and Broadway- below his biography from the programme of Fingernails Blue as Flowers (and presumably the last credit should be The Rise and Fall of Michael Rimmer rather than Mr. Rumus).

Zakes Mokae biography

In 1969 he moved into American films and established himself as a gifted character actor, and sometime, as in the horror film The Serpent and the Rainbow, and in the anti-apartheid film A Dry White Season, giving a glimpse of his full acting ability.

Zakes Mokae Zakes Mokae Zakes Mokae Zakes Mokae

In 1980 he founded The Black Actors Theatre with Danny Glover in San Francisco. In 1982 he won a Tony Award for his performance in Master Harold and the Boys and in 1993 received a nomination for The Song of Jacob Zulu.  In Feb 2005 he was presented with the South African Life-Time Achievement Award for his stage work. He continued working in theatre as a director: "I'm more into directing now... I leave acting to the actors. I've been acting for too long. It makes sense for me now to move from acting to directing." (Ken White in Neon).

Mokae taught at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and was a directing fellow of the American Film Institute (from biography in Jacob Zulu  programme).

"His final years were spent in Las Vegas, where he worked as the artistic director for the Nevada Shakespeare Company. He and his wife bought a second home in Cape Town in 2005 and had intended to spend more time in the new South Africa, but Mokae's advancing Parkinson's and then Alzheimer's disease meant they had to return to America." (Denis Herbstein in The Guardian,  10 Nov 2009).

Zakes Mokae passed away in his sleep on 11 September 2009 in Las Vegas after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.  He was cremated in Nevada, USA and laid to rest at the West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg, South Africa.


Some of the many tributes to Zakes Mokae:

"Zakes did us proud with his acting talent helping the world to understand the awfulness of apartheid. We give great thanks to God for this stalwart of our struggle for freedom. May he rest in peace and rise in glory"
Desmond Tutu, September 16, 2009,  Cape Town.

"I worked with Zakes in a movie called The Comedians. It was not a comedy. He was my assassin. But in the south of France we shared many laughs with Mandy and Alex Haley. Then more profoundly he was my mentor in learning how to do the Fugard plays. Mostly I miss his laugh."
James Earl Jones, September 16, 2009, New York, NY.

These and others from Legacy.com (click here).


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