`Woza Africa!': acting out the plight of South African blacks

Asinamali! Theater piece written and directed by Mbongeni Ngema. Any indigenous contemporary drama about black South Africans inevitably counterpoints the coverage (however censored) that chronicles the continuing ordeal of that nation's majority population. Such is the case with ``Woza Afrika!'' (``Rise Up Africa!''), the ``Festival of South African Theater'' being presented at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.

The series of four programs, continuing through Oct. 5, began with Mbongeni Ngema's ``Asinamali!'' (``We Have No Money!''). While expressing the plight of economically disadvantaged blacks, the title scarcely suggests the wealth of dramatic incident and the boundless creative energies released in the course of this extraordinary theatrical work.

``Asinamali!'' takes place in a South African jail. Having introduced themselves to the audience, five shaven-headed, khaki-clad inmates embark on what seem like impromptu accounts of their lives, times, and the events leading up to their imprisonment.

But this is no story-theater improvisation. Mr. Ngema and his appropriately called Committed Artists have achieved a highly discipined, frequently explosive performance involving vocal virtuosity, unaccompanied part-singing, and precisely choreographed action. Here is an ensemble in the best sense of the word -- a cohesive entity composed of richly individualized talents.

A program note informs us that ``Asinamali!'' had ``its genesis in the removals, forced evictions . . . [and] tent cities in the rain.'' But such grim reference points are merely part of the total montage presented to the spectator in the play's 90 uninterrupted minutes. As the prisoners describe the process of justice (or injustice) that got them incarcerated, they expose the spectator to a world that can be both horrifying and horrifyingly funny -- sometimes both at once.

A profusion of incidents crowds the small, almost bare Newhouse stage. A garble of interrogation, translation, and judgments buries the unfortunate defendant in a courtroom scene. A daunting attempt to acquire a work permit proves an errand into the bureaucratic maze, with only red tape for guidance and murder as a consequence. A farm laborer is convicted under the Immorality Act and a pickpocket tells wild tales of his mentor-accomplice. A young activist recalls protests that pitted stones against tanks and tear gas. At one point, two of the actors dart into the auditorium for a few moments of unsettling confrontation.

Throughout its fluid unfolding, ``Asinamali!'' mingles the personal histories of its characters with references to actual events and people. The play ends with a mordant litany of the names of ``wasted people'' -- those who have been imprisoned, killed, or exiled for their activism in behalf of black South Africans.

At this point, the play becomes a tribute by Ngema and his gifted actor-collaborators: Solomzi Bisholo, Thami Cele, Bongani Hlophe, Bheki Mqadi, and Bhoyi Ngema.

The South African play festival also includes ``Bopha!'' by Percy Mtwa. ``Children of Asazi,'' by Matsemala Manaka, and ``Gangsters,'' by Maishe Maponya, will be seen tomorrow through Saturday; and ``Born in the R.S.A.,'' by Barney Simon and cast, Oct. 1-5.

``Asinamali!'' and ``Bopha!'' are being presented in Washington this autumn, with ``Asinamali!'' touring North America through Nov. 30.

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