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

By Iris Fanger Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Iris Fanger Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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