Zakes 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 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.
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 appeared on the West End and Broadway. 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.
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).
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 the American state of Nevada, USA and laid to rest at the West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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