Award-winning South African Actor, Zakes Mokae, Dies

Published September 16, 2009

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Zakes Mokae, the Tony-winning South African actor best known for his work with playwright Athol Fugard in such apartheid dramas as "The Blood Knot" and "Master Harold ... and the boys," has died at the age of 75.

Mokae died Friday at home after suffering a stroke in May, the actor's wife, Madelyn, said Tuesday. She said Mokae also battled Parkinson's in recent years and returned to the United States for treatment after initially retiring to South Africa.

In addition to his stage work, Mokae appeared in such films as "The Comedians," "Darling" and "Cry Freedom" as well as television series such as "The X-Files" and "Oz."

But it was his work with fellow countryman Fugard that brought Mokae his greatest artistic success, including a Tony Award in 1982 for his portrayal of a servant and surrogate father for a young white man in "Master Harold."

The friendship between Mokae, a black saxophone player who wanted to be an actor, and Fugard, a white journalist who wanted to be a playwright, was forged in the black ghettos of Johannesburg in 1958. The men first met at places like Dorkay House, a club for black artists and a meeting ground for people of both races.

"The club was pretty close to the wind. It was under police surveillance," Fugard said in a 1985 interview with The Associated Press. "The authorities busted in on occasion to find out what was going on. All they found were a lot of musicians and would-be actors hanging out, talking and trying to do some work."

That work included "The Blood Knot," which tells the story of two men, both black but one light enough to pass for white. The play created a sensation when it was first performed at Dorkay House in September 1961.

It was the first time a white man and a black man appeared together on a South African stage. Audiences jammed the tiny theater, and a one-night stand became a six-month run. The play's success cemented a bond between the two men that withstood the brutality of apartheid in those early years.

"I didn't know it then but Zakes had the word 'survivor' written all over him. Not just 'survivor' but 'magnificent survivor,' " Fugard said in the AP interview. "I saw Zakes at the receiving end of a terrible system, and we shared some pretty dark moments."

It was Mokae who was harassed and arrested by authorities for refusing to carry a passbook, an identification necessity for South African blacks. When "Blood Knot" went on tour across South Africa, Fugard rode first-class on the trains. Mokae traveled behind in third-class.

Born Aug. 5, 1934, in Johannesburg, Mokae had no formal stage training.

"You don't have that in South Africa; it's for white folks, not black folks," he said in an AP interview. Mokae left South Africa in 1962, going to England - the place where he first considered himself an actor - and then to United States, working on and off-Broadway, in regional theater and in films and television.

In 1970, he starred off-Broadway with Ruby Dee and James Earl Jones in the American premiere of Fugard's "Boesman and Lena" and in 1985 in a revival of "The Blood Knot," sharing the stage with the playwright. Mokae received a Tony nomination in 1993 for his work in the Broadway production of "The Song of Jacob Zulu" by Tug Yourgrau.

In addition to his wife, Mokae is survived by a daughter, Santlo Chontay Mokae, and three grandchildren.

Written by Associated Press

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