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Woza Albert! - South African Pioneers


When Woza Albert! first appeared in Edinburgh during the Festival 
Fringe of 1982, apartheid was still firmly in place, and black 
contemporary South African theatre was largely unknown in Europe. As a 
major revival of Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon's devised 
play arrives in Edinburgh in a production by the Market Theatre of 
Johannesburg, who first presented it more than thirty years ago, the 
major season of new South African work that follows in its wake 
suggests things have changed for the better. But have they? Prince 
Lamla, director of this new production of the trio's satire about what 
happens when a born again Christ turns up in apartheid-era South Africa 
is as pertinent as ever, if not more so.

“South Africa is a very complex country,” Lamla says. “Post-apartheid, 
we've experienced so much, and there is change happening very slowly, 
but it is not always good. The education  system is getting messed up 
and so on, so I never see Woza Albert! as a political story. I see it 
as a very human story. It's about people trying to survive very simple 
things.”

To put the play's arrival in Britain in context, when Woza Albert! 
arrived in Edinburgh and London, the UK was in a schizophrenic state, 
whereby on one hand Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's rabble-rousing 
initiation of the Falklands War would catapult her to a landslide 
second term, on the other, a radical alternative protest movement, 
forged in the 1970s, was very much alive and kicking.

Along with CND and the anti nuclear demonstrations at Greenham Common 
led by the women's movement, the anti-apartheid movement was a crucial 
cause of the era's radical left. In some ways, Woza Albert!'s mixture 
of politics, comedy and a poor theatre aesthetic reflected the UK's 
burgeoning alternative theatre scene, albeit with a far realer sense of 
political oppression. The play    became a cause celebre, and was 
filmed and broadcast on national television.

“The play changed the whole face of theatre in South Africa,” says 
Lamla. “To do a play with black actors, and then executing it in such a 
way that the government couldn't stop it, it had the voice of the 
entire country. It also had a hand in letting the international 
community and the entire world know about apartheid.”

As well as Woza Albert!, the South African season will feature a second 
Market Theatre production. And The Girls In Their Sunday Dresses is a piece of black, female 
absurdist comedy set in a Lesotho rice queue. Another highlight should 
be Mies Julie, a post-apartheid take on Strindberg's classic play of 
forbidden love. Where the original  usually focusses on the class 
divide, Baxter Theatre and State Theatre's new production looks at a 
still taboo inter-racial erotic clash. A 1985 production saw actress 
Sandra Prinsloo, who appears in Edinburgh in The Sewing Machine, a play 
about loss and ageing, receive death threats when she took part in the 
first ever cross-colour kiss onstage when apartheid was still in place.

Another one-woman play is Mother To Mother, based  on the true story of 
a mob killing of American Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl, in Cape Town 
during violent uprisings in 1993. If many of these shows demonstrate 
the legacy of apartheid that remains in South Africa, a revival of 
Athol Fugard's angry 1972 play, Statements After An Arrest Under The 
Immorality Act., gets right back to the roots of modern South African 
theatre. Like Mies Julie, Fugard's piece looks at the all too real 
dangers of cross-colour love under the apartheid regime.
The backdrop to all this is a South African government led by the 
African National Congress, who were once outlawed as terrorists. Woza 
Albert!, meanwhile, is a set text in high schools. A political 
volatility remains in the country, however, and, in  Lamla's eyes, at 
least, Woza Albert! is far from a period piece.

“I can see how that might happen,” he says, “but really, not much has 
changed in South Africa. The challenge with doing the play now was to 
make it fresh, so people can feel something. Woza Albert! isn't just a 
play about South Africa. It is a global play. If you look at some of 
the things going on in Syria and elsewhere, it’s easy to see how 
relevant it is to the rest of the world.”

Even with his claims for Woza Albert!'s universality, Lamla 
acknowledges that it might still strike a chord close to home, where 
more grassroots artistic developments are ongoing beyond what has now 
become the mainstream.

“In South Africa, it feels sometimes like something is missing,” Lamla 
says, “but there are new plays that are coming out of the country, and 
some of the most important of them are coming out of community 
developments. That is where the future of South African theatre will 
develop out of, and that is what is so exciting here right now.”

Woza Albert!, Assembly Hall, 2-27, 4pm
www.assemblyfestival.com
The Herald, August 14th 2012

ends 

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