Interview: Dr Siphiwo Mahala in conversation about his acclaimed play, Bloke and His American Bantu– evoking the friendship and epic correspondence between the iconic writers, Bloke Modisane and Langston Hughes
On June 25, 2022, I was privileged to attend the opening performance of Dr Siphiwo Mahala’s Bloke and His American Bantu in the Rhodes Box Theatre at the National Arts Festival [NAF] in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape. Mandates on masks and Covid limits on seating had been lifted in South Africa on June 23 and there was buzz and excitement in the theatre, as we sat back, in anticipation of this much-talked about play by writer, playwright and academic, Dr Siphiwo Mahala. This stylish, intense and elegant play is a re-imagining of the friendship between two seminal writers- Bloke Modisane (South African) and Langston Hughes (American). They were heavyweight intellectuals and activists for social change; witty, urbane and very much emblematic of their milieus: Sophiatown in Johannesburg – Bloke Modisane; Haarlem in New York– Langston Hughes. The narrative of the play is framed in the 1960s and evokes their friendship; gritty conversations, debates and engagements about their work, social justice, exile, identity, Africa versus America and a lot more. The armature of the plays is built around the extensive correspondence between Modisane and Hughes (more than 50 letters), phone calls and face-to-face meetings.
I was captivated by the writing and knock-out performances by Josias Dos Moleele as Langston Hughes and Anele Nene as Bloke Modisane. Sello Maake Ka Ncube as director, vividly brings these men of letters to stage – the grand personalities of Bloke Modisane and Langston Hughes. Unfortunately due to loadshedding (national electricity outages), during the festival, I was unable post a review on TheCapeRobyn but I raved on social media. Post NAF, Bloke and His American Bantu has ignited tremendous interest. The play has been staged in Pretoria, Johannesburg and at the Edinburgh Festival (receiving four star reviews). It is an intriguing and stirring piece of theatre – the opportunity to get close up – and glimpse into the minds of Bloke Modisane and Langston Hughes and through them to gaze at their lives and times – through their epic cross-cultural, cross-country correspondence and exchange of ideas, debate and discourse. Next up, Bloke and His American Bantu is on December 2022, in Johannesburg at Arts Alive International Arts Festival, December 2-4 (7pm), at the Keorapetse William Kgositsile Theatre, University of Johannesburg. Ticket link: https://www.webtickets.co.za/v2/event.aspx?itemid=1521213267 Do not miss this play.
Trajectory of saw Bloke and His American Bantu
I saw Bloke and His American Bantu at NAF 2022. When was the play, first staged? After NAF, it was staged at Edinburgh and received four star review? Where else? Did NAF, lead to seasons elsewhere? NAF is the biggest arts festival in Africa – did that ignite interest in the play?
Dr Siphiwo Mahala: The play has taken a life of its own. I wrote it last year  as part of my fellowship at the University of Pretoria where it was showcased for over two days. In February this year , it was staged at the University of Johannesburg under very strict lockdown regulations. It then went to the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, where it got greater exposure to both local and international audiences. Participating at the National Arts Festival was crucial for both audiences and reviewers. What followed was a season at the State Theatre in Pretoria, after which we went straight to the Edinburgh Festival, where we earned a Four-Star rating. It is great that we close what has been a busy year with a performance at the University of Johannesburg [December 2022]; and there will be no Covid restrictions this time around.
Library as repositories of heritage-unearthing brotherhood
I read that Bloke and his American Bantu was birthed in 2012, in the US, when you went to the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture in New York to learn more about Langston Hughes. You were surprised and delighted to discover that Hughes had long association, by correspondence with Bloke Modisane. As I understand, you did not know about their correspondence and that this led to the play?
Dr Siphiwo Mahala: I had an idea that Hughes corresponded with several writers, including Modisane, Todd Matshikiza and Es’kia Mphahlele, among others. I went there looking specifically for his correspondence with Mphahlele, because I thought he was the main person he corresponded with. To my surprise, while Hughes and Mphahlele were quite formalistic in their correspondence, Hughes and Modisane had a much more intimate relationship. It was fascinating to see their relationship evolved through the letters. They moved from calling each other, Mr Hughes and Mr Modisane, to Langston and Bloke, then Lang and Blokie, and ultimately My Favourite Bantu and My American Bantu. The fact that they took a word that is normally used in a derogatory manner and adopted it as a term of endearment, told of a strong brotherhood between the two.
Letters- long form communication
Bloke Modisane was in exile in London when he wrote more than 50 letters to Hughes. In the 60s, there were phone calls and visits. They were men of letters. Nowadays, we have WhatsApp, email, voice calls. The nature of conversation has changed. What fascinated me about Bloke – the play – is the fabulous letters that they exchanged; the long form conversations that they had about everything -culture- Black culture in Harlem, in Sophiatown; their personal stories; stuff, the world. There was time put into those letters and through your wonderful script you brought that out. Comment about the medium of letters and bringing that into a play, on stage?
Dr Siphiwo Mahala: Going through the correspondence I was intrigued, first, by the sheer volume of the letters between Hughes and Modisane (they exchanged over 50 letters between 1960 and 1967), which suggested that they wrote to each other frequently. Then I was amazed by how seriously they took the art of letter writing. The choice of words and the lyrical manner I which they wrote shows that they knew that their epistolary was for posterity. I knew right there and then that I wanted to write a play about their camaraderie. It took me nine years to research about their lives and write the play.
I loved Bloke and the opportunity to go on a journey, through you as writer into the world of Bloke Modisane and Langston Hughes. However, many people felt that the staging was a tad flat and that the visuals dropped onto the screen – such a typewriter and other images – came across as a flat PowerPoint. The performances are knockout -with the charismatic and Josias Dos Moleele as Langston – fabulous – and Anele Nene doing a fine job as Bloke. For me, it was the interaction between the two that immersed and captivated me but I get the staging concerns raised by others.
Dr Siphiwo Mahala: The suggestion that the staging was flat baffles me, because the play is very unapologetic about being a historical and intellectual piece. I thought this is a very important story to tell because there is a lot to be learned out of a story of brotherhood. I think it is an inspirational story of love and care between man and man, something that we don’t often celebrate. The relationship between Hughes and Modisane stands out as an iconic bromance that through the art of letter writing minimized the distance between England and America, and metaphorically between apartheid South Africa and the civil society movement in the United States. Yes, the visuals could be better if we were to appoint a visual arts specialist. Our focus was to get the story out, making use of the available resources at our disposal. The good thing about plays is that every performance is unique, and we learn from every experience. That can only make us better.
Humour as a vehicle to understand characters
I love the ribbing that they give each other – Bloke and Langston. I think that you said in an interview that they had like a ‘bromance’? For me, I wasn’t sure if they liked each other. Sure they respected each other but Hughes saw Bloke as his African passion project – sending him clothes and goods. He was not averse to name dropping and neither was Bloke. They were celebrities and intellectuals. They used each other – for conversation, for introductions to others. They were both ultra-confident and brilliant. One can imagine them now with Instagram accounts and conducting their correspondence with the public watching out for new posts.
Dr Siphiwo Mahala: I describe their relationship as ‘bromance;, meaning a close but non-sexual relationship between two men. Friends cry into each other’s arms, share jokes and laugh out loud together. That’s what you find in the letters as well as in the play. I believe that humour lightens up the gloomiest of moments. In my art, I use humour as a vehicle to understand characters better, and also to absorb the reader or audiences into the story. I am trained in the art of turning passive audiences into active participants and the play itself is interactive – audiences taking part in storytelling. Credit must also go to the crew – the director and the actors. Some of the humour came from them especially after we started performing the shows at various venues. They would listen to what the audiences react to, and sometimes refine the lines accordingly.
Home and exile– highlighting the role of intellectuals and cultural workers in the fight against apartheid
Bloke’s sadness and despair of exile is palpable in the play- and his coping with grey London. It is a very poignant play. It is an elegant play. It is a play of words but within that is the yearning for home by Bloke, his exile, the loss and waste if his generation. Now, in SA, democratic SA, many intellectuals are leaving because they fear for their safety and worry about the future for their children so the circumstance have changes in that we are in a democratic society but exile is very much part of the our story. I think of Zakes Mda who lives in the USA. There are many other examples. Comments please on exile – physical emotional, personal and political and how it is imaged in Bloke?
Dr Siphiwo Mahala: Interestingly, you mention Zakes Mda who just spent a year in South Africa. I think it’s all about opportunities. Mda went to the US to teach Creative Writing, something that was barely taught in South African universities at the time. His exile was about work opportunities. Be that as it may, Modisane was in exile during a different era, when leaving home as just about the most effective way of fighting for home. The story of politicians who fled the country and went into the camps for military training is well known, but the role of artists and intellectuals has not received adequate attention. The play highlights the role of intellectuals and cultural workers in the fight against apartheid. Our freedom was not won on the battlefront, but through negotiation. International solidarity played a very important role in exerting pressure on the apartheid government, and the transnational relationships that the likes of Modisane established were integral in our liberation struggle.
Page to stage- imaging the archive of letters on stage
I had the feeling that although it was private conversation, that they were writing with a public audience in mind? Bringing their correspondence to stage- you have done this – taking private letters from page to stage – to theatre?
Dr Siphiwo Mahala: They were very conscious of building an archive as they wrote those letters. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable to each other, sharing their innermost feelings, including their anxieties and ecstasies. However, they were not readily made for letters, I had to use my own imagination in conveying the letters into a dialogue and blocking the scenes in such a way that the story flowed seamlessly. I was also fortunate to work with a director who understands my work, and who immerses himself in a story. This made it easier for him to translate my words into a series of actions, and the actors simply breathed life into it. What unfolded ultimately was magic on stage.
The intersection of Bloke and His American Bantu and House of Truth
In September 2022, I was privileged to see your play, House of Truth [tribute to Can Themba] at the Baxter, in Cape Town, performed by Sibuyiselo Dywili. Bloke and Can were so integral to the milieu of Sophiatown and the incredible Black intelligentsia– which was to be effectively snuffed out by the Apartheid regime. Sibu told me that 2024 will mark Can Themba’s centenary. Any plans to re-stage House of Truth and Bloke and his American Bantu? It has amazed me how many South Africans – across demographics – and the old colour classifications – do not know about Can Themba or Bloke Modisane and Sophiatown.
Dr Siphiwo Mahala: The year 2023 marks Bloke Modisane’s centenary. It’s also the 60th anniversary of his lecture tour in the US. It’s also the 60th anniversary of the publication of his autobiography, Blame Me on History. I think history does not allow grey areas, and stories like those of Themba and Modisane ought to be told. I am privileged to have been the one to write the very first biography of Themba, 55 years after his passing. It’s also a great honour that I got to write the very first play that cherishes the joint histories of US and South Africa, especially one that reimagines the life histories of such great icons.
I see House of Truth and Bloke as companion pieces in terms of evoking the milieu of Sophiatown and the rich legacy of writers like Can Themba and Bloke Modisane? Bloke is mentioned in House of Truth. Your comments please?
Dr Siphiwo Mahala: There is definitely a relationship between the two. As a scholar and creative writer, I have always been fascinated by the rich legacy of the 1950s Drum generation of writers, which both Can Themba and Bloke Modisane were part of. I wrote The House of Truth in 2016, while I was busy with my doctoral research. I couldn’t resist the urge to write, as I could see the life of Can Themba unfolding right in front of me. Similarly, I came across the correspondence between Modisane and Hughes by sheer accident while researching at Yale University in New Haven, US. I am first and foremost interested in the human story. I am fascinated by the lives of journalists of the 1950s because they are a good measure for that historic moment. They had their finger on the pulse of the society, so their experiences are in many ways a reflection of the epoch.
You make it part of your mission, when visiting cities, to go to libraries (as in bricks and mortar buildings) and search archives. Anything in the pipeline?
Dr Siphiwo Mahala: It usually takes long for me to write such stories. I usually do further research, as is the case with Bloke, which took me nine years. I believe in allowing stories to simmer, and then when I sit down to write, they just flow smoothly. That’s why it took me nine years to research Bloke, and only two weeks to write it. So, right now, I’m observing, reading, and taking interest in different things. A story will find me.
✳ Featured image © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, June 25, 2022, National Arts Festival [NAF], Makhanda, Eastern Cape, South Africa.