'Woza Albert!' is a playful, powerful look at apartheid

Woza Albert! Theater work created by Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema with director Barney Simon.

Two black South African writer-performers mock the malevolence of apartheid in the extraordinary satirical fantasy at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. ''Woza Albert!'' (meaning ''rise up, Albert'') imagines what would happen if Jesus returned to present-day South Africa. The advent of Morena (Lord), as he is called throughout the 90-minute extravaganza, prompts Percy Mtwa and Mbogeni Ngema to flights of comic fancy and also to some moving reflections.

The spectator learns that ''Albert'' has a double connotation for South Africans. Albert Street, Johannesburg, is the location of the government office where blacks apply for the passes without which they are subject to arrest. It is also the place where black workers importunately display their passes as they clamor for employment by passing white motorists. In a tense scene, the two friends of the story struggle for possession of a favored street corner position.

The second ''Albert'' reference is to Albert Luthuli, one of the black nationalist leaders whom the unseen Morena mystically resurrects near the end of the supernatural adventure. The reference illustrates the flow of contemporary allusions that give ''Woza Albert!'' its substance and relevance as political theater.

Physical energy and activity are essential to the overall impact of ''Woza Albert!'' From their overture as a two-man band (imitating all the instruments), Mtwa and Ngema brilliantly employ the arts of mime and dance in a series of actions that range from the delicate exactitude of threading a needle to the arduous task of pushing a brick-laden truck. The actors' creative invention and energy are alike unbounded.

Playing numerous roles along the way, the two men imagine a TV crew recording public reactions to the miraculous event. What will black people ask Morena for? One man replies, ''All the nice things white people eat.'' And there is the supplication: ''Please take us to heaven. It's terrible here.'' In the end, the government turns against Morena and locks him up. ''Woza Albert!'' can take it from there.

In the fashion of political drama, ''Woza Albert!'' touches on recent historical events and developments. Among them are the Soweto massacre of 1976, the homelands policy of tribal areas designated for blacks, and Robben Island, the high-security prison for black political prisoners.

The mingling of elements - satire, folk play, fantasy, propaganda, and action - plus the pell-mell pace may on occasion leave the uninitiated spectator a bit puzzled. But the ingenuity and vitality of the performance are something to marvel at, a tribute to the collaborative playmaking of Messrs. Mtwa, Ngema, and director-designer Barney Simon. What they do with two packing boxes, a rack of clothes, a couple of false noses, and some imaginative lighting (by Mannie Manim) recalls the definition of theater as two planks and a passion.

''Woza Albert!'' originated at Johannesburg's renowned interracial Market Theatre Company, which among its other achievements has premiered most of Athol Fugard's plays.

QR Code to 'Woza Albert!' is a playful, powerful look at apartheid
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today