One of the great classics of South African protest theatre gets a new run at the Market Theatre where it premiered thirty years ago.
This two-hander about the evils of apartheid is part of the rich history of protest theatre which was largely spearheaded at the Market Theatre during the latter half of the seventies and the eighties. The work, written by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon, premiered at the Market Theatre in 1981 and toured extensively abroad, contributing its bit to the international call for apartheid to end.
Let’s start with a bit of history for the younger generation. South African protest theatre in the seventies and eighties operated at two levels, one of which was the parochial level of arts starved of interaction with the world, and the other was within the context of what was happening in the international visual and performing arts world at the time. Both were important to the development of unique theatre with a South African stamp of authenticity. Experimental, or avant-garde, theatre everywhere was trying something new. The use of language and movement was changed in order to affect the perception of audiences, and the relationship of audiences to the work.
The very space in which theatre was created was essentially new. The Market Theatre was, and to a degree still is, an unconventional space, unhindered by the ‘prettiness’ and artificiality of theatres with proscenium arches and theatrical décor. Its largely politicised audiences had stopped expecting answers and were willing to think for themselves, to engage and to react on a conscious and subconscious level with what they were seeing. The very premise of protest theatre is a social message calling on people to change their attitudes, values and beliefs on an issue.
The method of creating work had traditionally been hierarchical, with an existing script, an interpretive director and performers who enact the collective vision of the playwright and director. During the seventies and eighties the performers themselves were given more interpretive freedom, hence the multiple creators of this work with Barney Simon as a facilitator for this creative process. During the creative process many of the traditional theatrical conventions of space, movement, mood, symbolism and language were challenged.
One of the proponents of this avant-garde theatre was a Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999), who argued that despite very grand use of sets, costuming, lighting and sound, theatre is unable to compete with the special effects of film, so he proposed letting theatre go back to its simpler roots. He said: “If it [the stage] cannot be richer than the cinema, then let it be poor.” The concept of “Poor Theatre” was born, not as a financial term, but one describing a paucity of props, special technical effects and fancy costumes and sets.
This suited South African conditions where there was no budget for elaborate theatrical devices and it was enthusiastically adopted by South African playwrights such as those responsible for the creation of Woza Albert! which was performed in exactly this mould, with the actors dressed in tracksuit pants alone while the décor consisted of two tea chests. The only props in the original production were pink clown noses used to depict white people and a cloth which was used as a shawl, table cloth and blanket. The bodies of the actors become props, such as in the beginning of the play where the one actor himself became the drum played by the other actor and later in the play where one of the actors becomes a human helicopter. In another technique popularised by Grotowski some decade or more before this play was written, the audience becomes part of the cast, making up unseen characters.
This production made use of most of the techniques above, although the lighting (Wesley France) was fairly sophisticated and the human body did not become a drum, much to my disappointment. Woza Albert! is vibrant, filled with simple music made by the actors and humour, joy and energy right from the opening scene where African rhythms are celebrated and which never flagged even for a second right through to the final call “Woza Albert!”.
The show is ninety minutes long, unbroken by an interval, and yet its length passed by unnoticed, despite the fact that the air-conditioning unit suffered a breakdown on opening night, rendering it useless. In fact, the heat simply added to the ambience as we, the audience, shared the discomfort of life in apartheid South Africa, far removed from air-conditioned privilege. Besides, as hot as we were, the actors were worse off as they pushed their sweating bodies through very demanding physical paces.
The vignettes flowed into one another seamlessly and effortlessly, the skill of the actors not really needing the lighting effects which signalled the changes. Both Mncedisi Shabangu and Hamilton Dlamini created a variety of characters clearly identifiable within seconds. At one point while Dlamini was portraying a white character he arrived without the distinctive pink nose which set the skin colour for the character, presumably because the nose had come adrift of its tapes holding it in place. There was still no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was a white man being portrayed. The quality of the mime set the scene even more effectively than the minimalist set and props by Nduka Ntambo, or the costumes by Thando Lobese. Some of the impressionist sketches were hilarious, like a pompous white generic Prime Minister, Fidel Castro, the mistaken identity at the airport and the helicopter scene, and others quite poignant like the child who sells food while his mother works, the telephone call to the police to report the terrorist, and the gogo too old to work.
The central premise that Christ’s second coming takes place in apartheid South Africa must have been incredibly hard on some audiences in the early eighties, and the use of terms like “boy”, “kaffir” and “baas” tore in the psyche of the opening night audience for the current run. The terms were already unacceptable to most of polite society long before 1981. The concept that the Lord would return and fall foul of the apartheid authorities and be pushed out of the tenth floor window at John Vorster Square only to be caught by an angel and gently waft to earth, or would be incarcerated on Robben Island only to escape by walking on water must have been a hard thing for the religiously conservative apartheid regime to bear. Especially when the play ends with the resurrection of black South African icons, Robert Sobukwe, Lillian Ngoyi, Steve Biko and finally the person for whom the play is named, Albert Lithuli. Woza Albert!
The play may have less impact in South Africa in 2012 than it did in 1981, but retains its relevance in dealing with the effects of racial discrimination. Its energy, passion and wit are timeless. The play, like the era itself, moves from almost an amused look at the foibles of apartheid, like the hated pass book and petty imprisonment, in the beginning of the play through to an increasingly dark and foreboding mood where Morena, the Lord, is branded as a fraud then an agitator, betrayed and turned over to the authorities for a R10 increase, presumably equal to thirty pieces of silver, and then as even the servants of the regime were sickened by what they were doing. The retelling of the familiar Biblical story is not rendered less powerful by its familiarity and the sickening certainty of impending disaster. Never let the evils of apartheid and racism be forgotten.
I have only two gripes, one major and one minor. The minor gripe is that Zola Budd did not become famous until 1984 and the use of the term “Zola Budd” for speeding taxis stemmed from and post-dated that. The reference is an anachronism which jarred in recreation of the 1981 work. The second is a major flaw. The diction was at times very poor, especially from Shabangu, making the verbal plot difficult to follow and lots of little bits were missed. The excellence of the physical theatre carried the context but it was nevertheless irritating.
As far as I can establish this work is eligible for nomination for a Naledi award 2012 to be awarded in February or March 2013 in the following categories: sound design (Mfana Jones Hlophe), lighting design (Wesley France), set design (Nduka Ntambo), costume design (Thando Lobese), performance by an actor in a lead role (Mncedisi Baldwin Shabangu), performance by an actor in a lead role (Hamilton Ntokozo Dlamini), director (Prince Lamla), production of a play (Woza Albert!)
Woza Albert! is showing at The Laager, Market Theatre complex, 56 Margaret Mcingana Street (previously Wolhuter), Newtown, Johannesburg until 5 February 2012. The performance I attended was on 11 January 2012.