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.

Black and White Dolls – this is not the future you are looking for

I’ve got a full day, and this post wasn’t in the schedule, but then I got this twit from marshallk

In this video, a young film-maker decides to go and recreate a test once used to help justify desegregation. Young black children are asked which doll they prefer between two almost identical dolls; the white one, or the black one. They overwhelmingly go for the white one. The results are the same when asked which is the “good” doll and which is the “bad” doll. But the heart-wrenching part comes when, having just identified the black doll as the “bad” doll, a little girl is asked which doll looks more like her. She’s not happy with the choice she has to make.

I don’t want to leave you completely depressed though. So here’s another tale of dolls—white and black—that ends up somewhat better. Like the video above, it has a long history, and the better part takes a while to come. I wish I could find a complete version of the song on-line, but you ought to buy the album anyway, it’s all excellent. In the meantime, listen to an excerpt from “Number One in America” on “Coming up for Air” and read the full lyrics below.

Here are the lyrics, courtesy of AHistoricality.

Number One In America
© 1987 David Massengill
In Nineteen hundred and sixty-three
In my hometown, Bristol Tennessee
I was sitting on my mother’s knee
Watching “Amos ‘n’ Andy” on TVAmos was Santa Claus on Christmas Eve
A little girl was tugging at his sleeve
Saying, “Can I have a doll my own color please?”
He Said, “Honey, you can make believe…”Just then came a call on the telephone
It was the mayor, he asked if my daddy was home
This was for his ears alone
Mom and me listened on the second phone

Mayor said, “The freedom Riders are on their way
And they’ll be here by Christmas day
Our laws they vow to disobey
‘Cause our school is as white as the milky way

Well, now we’re really in a fix
We can’t let ’em show us up like country hicks
But once the races mix
It’s good-bye Jim Crow politics

First it’s forty acres and a mule
Then they want to swim in our swimming pool
Pretty soon they’ll be wanting to go to school
Where we were taught the golden rule”

Imagine them telling us how to live
Imagine them telling us how to live

Chorus:
We’re number one in America
Number one in America
Beat the drum for Uncle Sam
Overcome in Birmingham
Dynamite in a Baptist church
Four teenaged girls lost in the lurch
Fire hoses and the billy clubs
Police dogs and the racist thugs
Nightriders and the lynching mobs
Lawmen say they’re only doing their jobs
To stay number one in America.

Ax-handles vs. the right to vote
All white jury, that’s all she wrote
Back of the bus, don’t rock the boat
Separate but equal by the throat

That was twenty-odd years ago
Where’s the change in the status quo?
The freedom land is lying low
it’s shackled down on rotten row

The black skinned man still gets the snub
When he applies to the country club
But he still gets hired to trim the shrubs
Get down on the floor and scrub

There’s a businessman out on his yacht
He’s a rain or sunshine patriot
He says it’s all a commie plot
To be Number One in America…

[Chorus]
The Ku Klux Klan is still around
With a permit to march in my home town
But only on Virginia’s ground
The Tennesse side turned them down

The sheriff stood there with his deputies
Ostensibly to keep the peace
But he made us this guarantee
“By God, They’ll not march into Tennessee!”

The network cameras were triple tiered
We laughed and cried, we hooted and jeered
But mostly we stood there unfeared
‘Til the Ku Klux Klan dissappeared

In some far off distant dawn
When a Black is president and not a pawn
Will they burn crosses on the white house lawn
And talk of all the days bygone

Imagine them telling us how lo live
Imagine them telling us how to live

We’re number one in America…
[Chorus]

Last Christmas Eve at the K-Mart store
A white family there, they was dirt poor
Father said, “Kids, pick one toy – no more
Even though we can ill afford…”

I watched his son choose a basketball
The oldest girl a creole shawl
The littlest girl chose a black skinned doll
And she held it to her chest and all

I watched to see how they’d react
Since they were white and the doll was black
But the mom and dad were matter-of-fact
They checked to see if the doll was cracked

So may you make a rebel stand
Where black and white go hand in hand
Until they reach the freedom land
Where the lion lies down with the lamb

Chorus:
O Number one in America
Number one in America
Beat the drum for Uncle Sam
Overcome in Birmingham
Dynamite in a Baptist church
Four teenaged girls lost in the lurch
Firehoses and the billy clubs
Police dogs and the racist thugs
Turn back the clock to Little Rock
Bought and sold on the auction block
Nightriders and the lynching mobs
Lawmen say they’re only doing their job
To stay number one in America

We shall overcome someday

Politics at Funerals

Here CNN discusses President Carter’s introduction of politics into his funeral speech for Corretta Scott King. Apparently this has been raising a fuss among some conservatives. As CNN says: “After the funeral yesterday, Kate O’Beirne, a prominent conservative writer, said liberals don’t know how to keep politics out of their funerals.”

Personally I find the fuss strange. Funerals are frequently a rallying point for the ideals of the deceased. When else do you have the attention of the country focused and thinking about a single set of values and issues? Nobody is claiming that President Carter said anything that would have gone contrary to the wishes of Correta King. On the contrary, she probably would have been very pleased at the attention those words have received.

Here is the portion President Carter’s speech which raised the fuss: “It was difficult for them personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the targets of secret government wiretapping, other surveillance.” The video is here. Anyone who thinks that wiretaps without court supervision will always be used correctly, for the right purposes, and not to discredit legitimate causes, should think long and hard about our history.