Elections and Erections: A One-Queen Play at the A.R.T.

“Don’t ask me about racism. As a white racist it didn’t affect me. But if you ask me about fear, I can tell you about that.”

Pieter-Dirk Uys, in “Elections and Erections”

That line ends a serious interlude in the show, one of several that provide counterpoint to the satire and humor he so deftly uses to highlight the flaws of South African society, both before and after apartheid. He has just told us how he came to be a democrat, and he has told us of sharing the garden-shed home of a yard-boy at a rich South African home. Of the fear of being discovered. The fear of being black with white, white with black. A fear so powerful that it overwhelms the fear of being man with man. Even now, when I relate the story to my friends, that final line sends a shiver down my spine.

Pieter-Dirk Uys’ alter-ego is Evita Bezuidenhout, a household name in South Africa, famous for over thirty years of satire against the apartheid government. But she hasn’t stopped there. “Elections and Erections” makes it clear that Uys’ true enemy is that which makes people afraid. Whether it’s corruption in the apartheid government or in the ANC; politicians denying the existence of AIDS; friendships with dictators based on a common race; ignorance; false pretenses; or just the everyday fears of trying to survive in a country stuck in a downward spiral. Uys wants to expose the things that make us afraid, shine the bright light of humor on them, and bring hope and laughter to the people he loves: the people of South Africa.

I’m hearing only bad news
From Radio Africa,
I’m hearing only sad news
From Radio Africa

“Radio Africa” by Latin Quarter.

If Evita Bezuidenhout has a counter-part in the the U.S., it might be Stephen Colbert, with his pseudo-conservative satire. But Evita is much more biting and relevant, and Uys has many more roles to don beyond Evita. He plays the ANC politicians contemplating whether the next president will get the position before, or after, he is thrown in jail for corruption. He lampoons (gently, but none-the-less) Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He describes the trials of a Jewish African Princess, her relatives self-exiled to Canada, trying desperately to be the liberal she knows she ought to be. He takes on Winnie Mandela, including relating the time he played her character (complete with rubber tire jewelry) with the real Winnie in the audience. He talks to the asian storekeeper whose husband used to be too black for jobs, but now is turned down because he is too white. He does a chilling rendition of Grace Mugabe as an evil child-like woman, losing her mind to AIDS. And he doesn’t save all his barbs for Africa; his characterization of Mother Theresa, filling in for Marilyn Monroe as God’s secretary, is priceless. The angels are on strike, suicide bombers keep showing up in pieces looking for their virgins, and the son of the managing director is refusing to return to Earth. He even does a great Hillary (and Bill!) impersonation.

What makes Uys’ work really stand out, particularly as compared to American satirists like Colbert, is its compassion; even his enemies are human. The apartheid-era security chief he lampoons still had a sense of humor. Winnie Mandala may have “necklaced” informants, but she now tours AIDS facilities and pushes AIDS education. This, in a country where the government Health Minister promotes a cure of beet juice, and claims that HIV drugs are poisonous. His barbs are as pointed as they are funny, but he sees the humanity in everyone. In his heart, his true goal is to make his people happy and unafraid. You can see it in his eyes as he relates the story of a little black boy who wanders into his theatre as he is building the stage. From a simple “do you like to sing” and a few shaky songs, you see Uys’ pride as he relates how that same child made it all the way to top awards at Trinity College. Uys’ South Africa has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with the pride of being a good human being.

Told today that they release you
That you had paid your debt
Nomzamo in her own damn country
How much more boorish can these people get?
But you refuse to get the message
Of waving whips, in bloody semaphore
Where only gunfire’s indiscriminate – as always
One People! One Cause!
One People! One Cause!
Nomzamo! Nomzamo…
“Nomzamo” by Latin Quarter.

South Africa has not been on the forefront of American minds for some time. As Uys says, if Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela hadn’t had an easy-to-pronounce first name, Americans may not have been aware of the country’s plight at all. In “Elections and Erections,” Uys entertains, and more importantly, educates. Throughout the show, he relays tidbits of history and culture which later become the punch lines of his comedy, ensuring the audience understands the satirical context of his work. Yet the pace never suffers. The flow of comedy and pathos, serious and profane, never falters. This is not a show you want to miss. I only wish we could import Pieter-Dirk Uys to provide a similar look at ourselves.

“Elections and Erections: A Chronicle of Fear and Fun” is written and performed by Pieter-Dirk Uys. It is playing at the American Repertory Theatre’s “Zero Arrow Theatre” playhouse (a wonderful dinner-theatre style space just off Harvard Square, with tables, a bar, and wonderful ambience). It will be showing through May 4th, 2008. For more information on this show and other performances, see the A.R.T. site.

The A.R.T. graciously provided free tickets to myself and other Boston-area bloggers in exchange for an honest review (good or bad). I’d like to thank them for initiating this experiment in new media.

Many thanks to @devyl for the editing assistance.
Any errors are due to my not following her advice.