In Memoriam: Zakes Mokae
Everyone you’ve ever heard of died this summer, but so did someone you probably recognize by face but not by name. Zakes Mokae almost fits into the Obscure Black C-Lister category, and sadly instead of a timely post celebrating his career I have to write about him in memoriam after his passing last week.
Zakes Mokae was the African dude – Father Kani in Cry Freedom, Lettie’s South African old flame on A Different World, Dr. Zeko in A Vampire In Brooklyn, and Big Kathy in A Rage In Harlem. Mokae had a recurring role on Oz and guest spots on Law & Order, Monk, and The X-Files. If you saw the extremely creepy Wes Craven movie The Serpent and The Rainbow you know that Mokae could also pretend to be Haitian – in Hollywood just about anyone authentically non-slave-descendant will do for such roles. What you don’t know about Mokae is that his accomplishments reach far beyond the representation of the African diaspora in television and film; he was also considered South Africa’s first thespian.
Zakes Mokae was born in Johannesburg in 1934, perhaps the least likely background for an accomplished black actor. Having grown up in the thick of apartheid, he was jailed numerous times, once saying “if you’re a black man in South Africa and you’ve never been in prison there’s something wrong with you.” Although he started out as a musician, Mokae and actor/plawright Athol Fugard (a white South African) were part of a drama collective that presented the country with its first ever interracial cast in the groundbreaking play, 1960’s “The Blood Knot.” Since black people weren’t allowed to do…um…ANYTHING in 196o’s South Africa, when the highly-praised play traveled to London in 1961 Mokae was barred from re-entering his homeland. In response, Mokae attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and didn’t return to South Africa until the 1980’s, by then having founded the Black Actors Theater in San Francisco Danny Glover and boasting a Tony Award for 1982’s “Master Harold.” Sadly, his return to South Africa was to witness the unjustified the execution of his brother by the state, so Mokae fled South Africa again, only returning in 2005 so that he could live the remainder of his life knowing what a free South Africa felt like. Zakae Mokae passed away on September 11 at the age of seventy-five after having suffered a stroke.