Woza Afrika

Lincoln Center's 'Woza Afrika'

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...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.