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EXCLUSIVE: Blood Psalms - Elevating African stories to epic proportions

Bokang Phelane sits down with Phil Mphela to chat about what promises to be her breakthrough role in the upcoming epic fantasy series coming to Showmax in 2021. Portraits by Neo Baepi.
Author: Phil Mphela
Fri, Aug 21, 2020

Born in Maseru, Lesotho, where she attended high school before studying a BA in Psychology at Monash University South Africa, rising star Bokang Phelane is no stranger to the small screen.

The actress has had roles in a few television productions, culminating in her being cast in the new series. In Blood Psalms, Phelane plays Princess Zazi, a character who is the thread that binds the stories of many tribes in this African mythology based on an IsiXhosa legend.

From Zazi's perspective, we are taken through a journey of discovery and learning about a world created by prolific storytellers — Jahmil Qubeka and Layla Swart of Yellowbone Entertainment.

Phelane, who is also an aspiring film director, tells Phil Mphela that being part of the series has opened her eyes to new possibilities around how Africans get to tell their own stories. She has plenty more to say:

How did you get cast as a lead in this major co-production?

I played Queen Nandi in a pilot Layla Swart was producing — both her and Jahmil loved my take on the character and based on that I was cast as Princess Zazi.

Without giving a lot away, please unpack the role that you play on Blood Psalms.

When the king becomes unable to rule, Princess Zazi is driven out of her home and kingdom by her usurping granduncle who covets the throne for himself. Driven into the wilderness, she learns about her true identity and faces the plight of her newly-found supernatural abilities.

This will be an epic African mythology that will be aired globally. Please give us your view on the importance of African storytelling.

Many Africans can only identify themselves from a historical and situational place of defeat and trauma. But that is not all we are — our full history as Africans is shrouded in a lot of mystery and mis-telling. Blood Psalms is, in part, a deciphering of such mysteries and with creative licence, we hope to create a visual reference and a moment where Africans can collectively look at themselves from a Godly consciousness.

How has it been being part of a big ensemble cast of over 50 members?

A true honour. The cast is filled with some of South Africa’s best talent and I get to witness the greats at work.

Are there any cast members on set that you looked up to while aspiring to be an actor?

There are so many! From Mothusi Magano, who plays my father in the series, to both ubab’ Sello Maake Ka-Ncube, ubab’ Sello Motloung and Hlubi Mboya, to mention a few. Basically, a majority of cast list is filled with actors who have inspired me from quite early on in my life to pursue acting.

What’s it like to work with Jahmil and Layla?

Working with Layla and Jahmil has been an uplifting experience. Jahmil is so clear and concise with his vision and kindness precedes his set. I have worked with them before, but behind the scenes. They have taught me a lot about the industry. Jahmil more so about story and character development, which has really aided my understanding and approach to my character. They also involved me in the early stages of story and character development. And Layla has taken me under her wing and taught me so much about producing film and TV. She has taught me a lot about persevering in this industry. I cannot quantify my gratitude and appreciation for her.

Who do you see your character resonating with? 

I believe with every person who is going through a journey of self-discovery and self-actualisation.

When you have a five-minute break during filming, what do you spend that time doing?

If it’s not an emotionally draining scene, you’ll find me cracking jokes and just being foolish!

What do you hope will be a takeaway for viewers after watching Blood Psalms

‘Who am I really? Beyond my Nguni, Sotho/Tswana, Vhenda/Shaangan history, who am I? And what is my purpose on this earth?’

What kind of acting roles will you be pursuing in the future?

I am fortunate enough to have worked with two of the country’s best directors right at the beginning stages of my career. I have played a lead in an Akin Omotoso romcom,  scheduled for cinema in 2021, I am playing the role of my dreams now, in a Jahmil Qubeka ‘coming of age’ fantasy drama, and I’ve been a lead in a horror film I produced. For all these roles I have used one formula to choose/manifest projects, as my journey with acting is not just about my desires, but also what needs to be communicated and reflected in society. So when I pray I always say, “God, let the role I play next be something entertaining, something consciousness shifting/educating, and something pioneering.”

Gone are the days where we would have to rely on and be limited to genres to tell our stories. With Blood Psalms daring to take on the epic fantasy realm, we are opening a whole new space for creatives. These are sentiments echoes by Phelane, and judging by her determination and excitement about her role, tagged! firmly believes the future is alive with possibilities. 


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