Out of apartheid, into the world
Ten years after South Africans elected Nelson Mandela as president, three performers take audiences on a journey of emotional power.
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — A trio of eloquent voices are speaking out in anguish and pride about their homeland, South Africa - its past, present, and future. Dramas by three playwright-performers are the central events of the American Repertory Theatre's (ART) month-long festival in Cambridge, Mass., celebrating the 10th anniversary of apartheid's end.
Sold-out houses for the festival's first three weeks attest to the excitement shared by audiences and performers alike over the birth of a democracy that achieved black majority rule without massive bloodshed. Despite the problems that remain, the success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in mending relationships means that children born after 1994 in South Africa have no direct experience of apartheid.
The ART festival performers represent the ethnic diversity of South African society. Satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, who appears in "Foreign Aids," comes from an influential Afrikaner family on his father's side and German Jews on his mother's. John Kani, who wrote and performs in "Nothing But the Truth," is a black South African. Pamela Gien, who revisits her childhood in "The Syringa Tree," was born into a privileged white family, descended from a French-English-Afrikaner mix on one side and Russian-Jewish immigrants on the other.
Their responses to apartheid were varied: Kani made the decision to stay in South Africa, Uys left for London but later returned, and Gien emigrated as an adult. Despite these different paths, they are united in their faith in the new democracy.
Kani says, "You found during apartheid a strange occurrence from the white folks themselves. There were those who did make a choice to speak out and stand and be counted in the army of human beings who believed in justice. And then there are those who left. They found themselves loving South Africa so much that they made a contribution by informing opinionmakers in foreign countries what was going on, because the South African government had a very strong propaganda machine," he says.
Uys is concerned with the present day, particularly the high incidence of AIDS cases in his country, which he says the government barely acknowledges. Kani's play deals with putting to rest the emotional residue from apartheid and moving on. Gien, in her one-woman show, returns to the sheltered life she knew as a 6-year-old.
The idea of the festival came from Robert Woodruff, ART's artistic director, and Robert Orchard, executive director. "It's a great way to interface with the Harvard University community, [to combine] arts and politics," Woodruff says.
In an interview shortly after he arrived in Cambridge, Uys recalled being aware of apartheid as a child, "but it was life. We didn't know it was a problem. We were incredibly controlled by government censorship. God was an Afrikaner and the blacks were sweet but they couldn't speak. It was the absolute comic-strip racist background." In London, he learned about the struggle when he saw footage of Afrikaners shooting blacks. "The thing that saved me was drama when you study Shakespeare, Goethe, Becket, and O'Neill, and it's based on truth and the human condition. That's when I thought, 'This isn't right,' " he says.
Before apartheid ended, Uys created an alter-ego in the character of Evita Bezuidenhout, "the most famous white woman in South Africa," as he calls her. Elegantly dressed and speaking as a comically opinionated Afrikaner, "Evita" was able to hold the government up to ridicule. "Humor became my weapon of mass destruction," he says.
When Nelson Mandela became the first president of a democratic South Africa, Uys was elated and thought, " 'I must get a proper job' because my target was gone. Then I realized that racism will always be there and democracy is a fragile balance."
Now, his passion is to speak out about the government's handling of AIDS. Besides Evita, Uys transforms himself into familiar figures in "Foreign Aids," including P.W. Botha, the former president under apartheid; Mandela; and even former US President Bill Clinton. "I feel theater must not give answers but ask questions. What can we do now to save a life?" he asks.
Uys and Kani were early members of the Market Theater in Johannesburg. Kani says he discovered theater in 1965 by meeting Athol Fugard, the white South African playwright who was working with a group of black actors at the Serpent Theater in Port Elizabeth. Because apartheid forbade the mixing of the races, the Serpent Theater was illegal. "We used to hide in the wardrobes when the police came, " Kani recalls.
"I come from a long line of storytellers," he says. "I picked Athol Fugard to teach me to tell these stories." Kani was arrested in 1976 when he returned from an American tour with the Market Theater troupe. During that tour, his performances in Fugard's two masterpieces (written with Kani and Winston Ntshona), "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead" and "The Island," earned Kani a Tony Award for Best Actor. Such acclaim meant little to the authorities. "In those days, you only had to think opposition to the government; all forms of resistance were obliterated."
'Nothing But the Truth" tells the story of South Africa in the years after apartheid as experienced by a black family. One brother chose to remain in the country to fight; the other became an exile. The play explores the 30 years of bitterness and estrangement.
Kani speaks proudly of Mandela's reaction after he saw "Nothing But the Truth" just before its opening in Johannesburg. "He told me, 'It deals with major issues of today but you have cushioned it as a family drama. Thank you for telling the story,' " Kani says.
Gien's deeply moving performance in "The Syringa Tree," which opened the festival and finished its run last weekend, was a way of coming to terms with feelings she thought were buried. After she came to America, the stories burst out of her in an acting-class exercise. Her teacher, Larry Moss, urged her to write a play, which he subsequently directed. Gien's work is a poetic, dancelike, but searing re-creation - part based on fact but fictionalized - of a childhood touched by apartheid's senseless restrictions. For example, the laws banned servants from having their children with them in the white areas - instead, black children were brought up in the distant townships by others. In the play, Gien also recalls her grandfather's murder by a black man - a criminal act unrelated to the struggle to end apartheid.
After leaving Cambridge, Gien travels to South Africa, where she will perform her play for the first time there. Kani, who stepped down recently as director of the Market Theater, returns to continue his acting and writing career. "I want to tell so many stories," he says.
Before long, audiences in South Africa will know of their heroes only through plays and history books. "Mandela is 85," says Uys. "He's frail. Desmond Tutu is frail. All the old party angels have the feathers falling away from their wings, preparing us for the day when they fly away," he says. "But we're growing up. We're 10 years old now. We have to look after our brothers and sisters."
• "Foreign Aids" continues at ART's Zero Arrow Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., through Jan. 26; "Nothing But the Truth" opens Friday at ART's Loeb Stage, Jan. 21 to 30. "The Syringa Tree" has closed.