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Zakes Mokae (1935 – )

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Zakes Mokae (1935 – ) Awarded for:
Contributing to South African theatre and exceptional achievement in the field of acting.
Profile of Zakes Mokae

Zakes Mokae, a Tony Award winner and one of South Africa’s most gifted and famous actors abroad, was born in Sophiatown in 1935.

Founder of theatre groups with Athol Fugard in the 1950s, Mokae has won acclaim for his stage performances, including in The Blood Knot, Boesman and Lena, and Master Harold ... and the Boys, for which he won the prestigious Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Play in 1982.

Among his numerous film performances are the celebrated A Dry White Season and Cry Freedom. On television, he has been a guest actor in many popular series, including The West Wing, Starsky and Hutch, The X-Files and Knight Rider.

Mokae attended St Peter’s Anglican School in Rosettenville where he got to know the superintendent, Father Trevor Huddleston.

He joined the Huddleston Jazz Band as a saxophonist alongside the likes of Hugh Masekela.

The acting bug bit when he went along with a friend to an audition for a play. Mokae took up acting after meeting Athol Fugard, then an unknown playwright.

He and Fugard worked together, creating new plays that reflected the situation in South Africa of the time. In Mokae, Fugard had an actor with the emotional intelligence required for his work.

Blood Knot, performed by Mokae and Fugard, attracted world attention.

Frustrated in his career by apartheid, Mokae went to London in 1961 to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and appeared on the West End and Broadway.

He landed his first major film role in 1967 in The Comedians with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. He moved to the United States of America in 1969 to pursue his film and television career, acting in many big studio-backed productions, including the cult successes The Serpent and the Rainbow, A Rage in Harlem, Body Parts and Outbreak and, for television, Roots: The Next Generation.

This was a long way from Mokae’s first-ever film performance in Dilemma, an adaptation of Nadine Gordimer’s A World of Strangers, which was clandestinely filmed in South Africa in 1962.

In 1980, Mokae founded The Black Actors Theatre with Danny Glover in San Francisco.

In 1982, on the night of his Tony Award success with Master Harold ... and the Boys, Mokae’s joy was shattered when he got news for the first time from a journalist in South Africa that his younger brother was on death row and a few days away from being hanged. Obviating his Broadway contract on Master Harold ... and the Boys as soon as he was able to, he devoted himself to saving his brother’s life but could not in the end.

Mokae continued acting for the stage, achieving a Tony Award nomination in 1993 for The Song of Jacob Zulu, a story of an African National Congress bomber who is hanged for his acts.

Mokae also began directing for the stage, most notably the August Wilson Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences in 1999, and The Road to Mecca in 2003.

In 2005, Mokae was presented with a Naledi Theatre Awards Lifetime Achievement Award.

In recent years, Mokae has been working as a theatre director for American companies, including the Nevada Shakespeare Company in California where he is based.