What happens when you run out of enemies? This plaintive question, uttered by one of the protean figures in the recent South African one-act White Men with Weapons, might have been the catalyst for the Woza Afrika! series presented at this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival. From an evocation of a mass hanging, to the pageantry of Zulu warriors, to a sketch of a Nike delivery truck hijacked with a banana, the images from these South African plays responded to the tantalizing question: Where can the country’s theater go now that apartheid is dead?
Back in the days before Nelson Mandela was released, politics and protest fueled South Africa’s dynamic theater scene. The works of Athol Fugard, the musical Sarafina!, and other exports-including the plays that found their way to the original Woza Afrika! series during Lincoln Center’s 1986-87 season-acquainted American audiences with a dramatic tradition that aimed far beyond entertainment. South African playwrights aspired to challenge, educate, and, in some mystical way, empower their audiences, and by so doing to strike a blow against the country’s regime. With the cultural boycott an obstacle to the staging of foreign plays, it was sometimes difficult to find a South African production that did not deal with politics.

Critics, back in the old dispensation, might carp that “protest” plays preached to the converted, soothing the consciences of liberal audiences, often largely white, with a few hours of token moral indignation. Some artists, too, resented the pressure to launch an anti-authoritarian skirmish on every single stage. From an aesthetic point of view, in any case, protest theater’s effects were less significant than its premise; the widespread conviction of playwrights, directors, and actors that their work could change society made theater contagiously exciting.

Entangled as American thespians can be in discourse about funding woes, the kitsch factor on Broadway, or financial squabbles like the recent lawsuit over the Rent profits, it may be difficult for us to imagine a situation where theater seems urgent. But in the “old” South Africa it did, and the atmosphere could be intoxicating. The Lincoln Center Festival’s object, in mounting a new Woza Afrika! series composed of recent plays, was to show how South African dramatists feel, so to speak, on the morning after.

History has swept away apartheid’s most obvious outrages, and the formerly stark moral chiaroscuro has absorbed the spectrum of gray. Blame for the country’s ongoing problems-vast inequities in wealth, high unemployment, crime, and vicious cycles of violence, for example-is less easy to place. It is not surprising that the plays at Lincoln Center seemed to be groping through these new conditions.

Creative works that wander outside the art-for-art’s sake encampment must subscribe to one end of the old dichotomy: art as mirror, or as lamp. Either the work must reveal society to itself, perhaps motivating it to change, or else it must beam a light onto its path. In the world of South African theater, the recent selection of plays suggests, the mirror has misted and the lamp shines at a lower wattage.

Glimmers of protest-theater urgency did brighten this summer’s Woza Afrika: After Apartheid. It is surely no accident, for example, that all the actors moved with an ease and extravagance of gesture rarely seen on an American stage. This was particularly evident in the three one-person shows, whose apparently inexhaustible actors conjured scenes and people out of nothing.

In the beguiling comic sketches of Paul Slabolepszy’s Once a Pirate, for example, Seputla Sebogodi, playing the fanatical soccer fan Goodyear Mamabolo, created a whole stadium out of an ice cream cooler and a bouncing orange. Once a Pirate (directed by Lara Foot) touched on serious issues-racial injustice, the global village’s stealth attack on traditional African culture-but defused them with humor, as in the moment when, aiming to charm a discriminatory landlord, Goodyear donned sunglasses, a baseball jacket, and an absurdly charming grin, and swaggered up to the door claiming to be an American black (die-hard South African “racialists” have often regarded African-Americans as honorary whites). A similarly humorous approach guided White Men with Weapons, actor and writer Greig Coetzee’s hilarious satire of his months in the South African Defense Force (directed by Garth Anderson).

Other productions hewed more closely to the protest theater model. While Magi Nonzini Williams’s one-character play Ma-Dladla’s Beat, about a resilient woman’s struggle to make ends meet, focused on themes like marriage and motherhood, it didn’t shrink from socio-economics. “The rich are still rich, the poor still poor,” chanted actress Delly Malinga, wearing red leg warmers, as she recalled a Zulu protest march with the jogging dance steps habitually used by South African demonstrators. With its domestic vignettes veering off toward panoramas of a society in flux, Ma-Dladla’s Beat had the zeal and rather heavy sincerity of an earlier theatrical era.

Running in double bill with Ma-Dladla’s Beat was a one-act even more typical of the old mode: Bergville Stories, written and directed by Duma Ndlovu, creator of the original Woza Afrika! series. Set in one of South Africa’s violence-plagued black townships, Bergville Stories portrayed a confrontation between locals (presumably supporters of the African National Congress) and a worker hostel’s Zulu residents (presumably suspected of supporting the Zulu-dominated political party Inkatha). Despite its grim depiction of a mass execution, Bergville Stories ended on a note of hope with stirring choruses by the all-male cast capitalizing upon an infectiously triumphant musical tradition.

The stage for Bergville Stories was bare, except for a window frame that descended periodically on a wire to emphasize the separation between the hostel dwellers, trapped inside the building, and their enemies lying in wait. This lone fragment of set, drawing attention to the invisible township around the besieged hostel, emphasized the role of the audience’s imagination-paralleling, in some ways, the creative work of South Africans bringing a new society into being.

A similar message might have been incorporated into the only preliberation play in this Woza Afrika! series. Umabatha: The Zulu Macbeth, written in 1969 by Welcome Msomi, transposes the story of Macbeth to nineteenth-century Zululand, following Shakespeare’s text closely without being a translation. In the Johannesburg Civic Theater’s spectacular production, directed by the author, Umabatha proved to be the highlight of the South African tenancy at Lincoln Center. Ghosts in traditional African masks stalked through smoke seeping from the pots of the three sangomas (witch doctors-Msomi’s version of the witches), and warriors in Zulu dress rallied and fought against color-saturated backdrops. The rousing curtain call outshone some of this year’s Broadway spectacles.

Umabatha provides an almost eerie experience to the non-Zulu speaker who knows Macbeth. Exotic and terribly familiar, fantastic and inevitable, the newer play puts the viewer in the position of the witches, able to predict ghosts, murder, and madness from the vantage of a completely different reality. Perhaps all theater audiences have this illusion of augury to a certain extent, a result of sharing the characters’ temporal and spatial frame in a way that a book or movie does not permit. And perhaps this sense of privilege makes protest theater especially exhilarating, as audiences feel themselves governing the future.

That, overall, the Woza Afrika! festival was not completely exhilarating was certainly understandable. One sensed the artists’ struggle to find new meaning after the dissolution of certainty. “All around me the cracks begin to appear,” murmured a frightened army officer, forced to reexamine his convictions, in White Men with Weapons. It will be worth waiting until the mirror and the lamp brighten again, revealing the landscape that change has shaped.

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: View Contents

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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