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Woza Albert!: Woza Albert!

Woza Albert!
2008, Inc. or its Licensors. Please see copyright information at the end of this document.

The Play
Woza Albert! is a twenty-six-scene, quick-action play, whose succession of vignettes of black life during South Africas apartheid period shows the absurdity of racial oppression. It also illuminates the logic of a plot in which South Africans seek the return of a savior, Morena, who fulfills the biblical prophecy that Jesus Christ will return. The plays title means Rise Albert, referring to the deceased leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Luthuli and symbolizing biblical prophecies that the dead will rise to join Jesus Christ when he is resurrected. At the conclusion of the play, Morena goes to the cemetery to raise Luthuli from the dead (as Jesus miraculously raised Lazarus in the New Testament) and to summon other prominent past leaders, including Robert Sobukwe, Lilian Ngoyi, and Steven Biko, to rise and make South Africa a heaven on earth for blacks by addressing the atrocities of apartheid. The stage for Woza Albert! is sparsely set with two tea chests and a suspended wooden plank with nails that hold the ragged clothes that the actors use for character transformations. The actors wear pink clown noses held with elastic bands around their necks for use in scenes in which they portray white characters. Brief chronological scenes reveal a thematic unity as the two characters demonstrate the types of relationships and encounters that exist within South African society. For example, in the opening scene, a policeman interrogates a South African entertainer about the expiration of his passbook, a permit that allows him to work and move about freely. The injustice of the episode is clear, but scene 2 confirms that such an offense leads to jail time for the offender. The successive scenes demonstrate South Africans reduced quality of life and their desires for freedom and personhood as the actors transform themselves from prison inmates, who debate the merits of protest strategies versus religious perseverance, to train-hoppers, who debate religion and the possibilities of Morena returning. Beginning in scene 7 the characters interview international figures, such as Cuban leader Fidel Castro, as well as local South Africans about their thoughts and expectations regarding Morenas possible visit to South Africa. These interviews mock modern media and television strategies of sensationalizing events for the sake of ratings, but as the characters transform into local South Africans, they reinforce the hopes and desires of an oppressed body of people. Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa adeptly reconstruct daily interactions that one would encounter in Johannesburg by dramatizing conversations with a young meat-vendor, who sells rotten meat; an old woman, who searches garbage cans for food; a barber, who works in an open-air market with only a chair and old clippers; and a fragile, toothless old man, who shares a historical narrative in order to emphasize that Morena will be slaughtered if he chooses to come to South Africa. The foreboding seriousness of the old mans prophecy has a limited effect as the next set of scenes comically portrays the national and international, media-frenzied, Hollywood-style anticipation of Morenas arrival on a jumbo jet. Film-makers get full coverage of Morenas arrival, only to discover that the man they thought was Morena is merely a simple man, Mr. Smith, who is visiting his great-aunt Matilda. With different motives, all levels of South African society begin to anticipate Morenas arrival, but no group anticipates the Saviors arrival more than African men struggling to find work, keep work, and receive money in order to meet the needs of their families. Ngema and Mtwa perform the most elaborate action of the play in Woza Albert! 1

Woza Albert!: Woza Albert! scenes 16 and 18, when they scathingly demonstrate the exact nature of their day-to-day oppression by a system that has no regard for their human needs, their freedoms, their wives, or their children. Inevitably, Morena arrives and, true to the plays biblical context, performs modern miracles, is betrayed and crucified, rises on the third day and resurrects South Africas past heroes, and triumphantly shows that the human spirit of South Africans will survive. The ritual repetition of a freedom song in the final scene signifies celebration: Our Lord is calling./ Hes calling for the bones of the dead to join together./ Hes raising up the black heroes./ He calls to them.

Themes and Meanings

Woza Albert! has been criticized for doing too much in too little space, likely because the play addresses oppression, labor, survival, separation of families between South African homelands and the cities, poverty and homelessness, police brutality, and political imprisonment. However, the play addresses three key themes that have the most meaningful implications for theatergoers. Resisting oppression with religious faith is an important theme of the play. This theme takes on ironic undertones because, in a society where there is such institutionalized racism and systematic oppression, it seems hypocritical that the Afrikaner government is a self-proclaimed Christian nation. Thus, the metaphor of the Saviors return is complex and appropriate for the type of satire that Ngema, Mtwa, and Barney Simon created for the stage. Fantasizing a biblical prophecy in South Africa is ironic because all Morenas miracles relate to the mundane yet politicized struggles of South Africans. The play challenges peoples definitions of fantasy by testing the apartheid governments commitment to Christianity and their anticipation and treatment of a black Savior. In scene 18, when Morena is betrayed and caught, Morena, like Jesus at the crucifixion, prays, Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing, but his follower insists, They know! They know!, a striking blow to the Christian morality that Afrikaners claim to have. The play also questions to what extent freedom is a fantasy. The answer, for those who believe the promises of Christianity, is that freedom is not a fantasy because the Bible and the Savior have promised that it is possible for justice to reign on earth just as it does in heaven. In scene 22 the prisoners at Robben Island are perplexed with the fact that they, as prisoners, were given Bibles since the New Testament emphasizes freedom through a belief in the Savior. The second coming of Christ, who is portrayed by the black Morena, internationalizes the apartheid struggle as a globally noteworthy situation and highlights another theme: Although the international media are readily willing to cover Jesuss return, the same media do not mobilize to demonstrate apartheids atrocities to the world. This discrepancy indicts the international world for not helping South Africans gain freedom from apartheid. Numerous international newspapers and periodicals are mentioned for converging on Robben Island to get interviews with the soldiers guarding Morena. In addition, the mass media, including pressmen, radiomen, South African television, [and] international television, were waiting for Morena upon his arrival at the airport in Johannesburg in order to get a good story. The final theme of the play is the pressing need for South African black leadership. At the time the play was written, most leaders were either imprisoned or deceased. The one free leader, Bishop Desmond Tutu, is mentioned as one of the first people with whom Morena meets upon his arrival. The playwrights also refer to Nelson Mandelas imprisonment on Robben Island, although the text mentions him only as the agitator imprisoned on the Island. Ngema and Mtwa give scathing commentary on so-called black leaders who act as puppets for the apartheid regime. The fact that Morena, a black Jesus, performs nonsupernatural miracles for South Africans is perhaps the true irony of the play. It suggests that ordinary men could also do these feats and that apartheid is so oppressive that the attainment of basic human rights requires The Play 2

Woza Albert!: Woza Albert! supernatural power. Morenas resurrection of Luthuli, Sobukwe, Ngoyi, and Biko, among others, is a symbolic resurrection that becomes a call for new leaders to forge their way into the political struggle against apartheid in the tradition of these fallen heroes.

Dramatic Devices
Woza Albert! creatively makes use of satire and humor as a way of balancing sharp political commentary. The quick scene changes and the two-man, revue-style cast to cover more than one dozen different characterizations prevent the audience from being overwhelmed. The most visible prop, the clown nose used to designate white male characters, symbolizes the buffoonery, absurdity, and cowardice of the apartheid regime. Having the principal characters perform a multitude of roles under their real names gives the play a reality check and reminds audiences that these actor-playwrights have firsthand knowledge of the absurdity that they dramatize. In addition, many of the lines and words in the play are spoken in both Zulu and Afrikanns. The dramatic text provides translations. The performers make use of mime, dance, music, song, and an impressive athleticism that sustains the energy of this ninety-minute, no-intermission play. Biblical symbolism grounds much of Morenas action throughout the play. He is asked to perform miracles comparable to those of Jesus and with which audiences are likely to be familiar. In scene 18, there is an archetypal Judas figure whose dramatic betrayal is identical to the biblical betrayal, except for the fact that Morena confronts his Judas face-to-face. The audience is also challenged to identify other biblical symbolism, such as an instance when Morena is hungry and thirsty but is offered only salt and vinegar-flavored potato chips and a cola drink. This is similar to Jesus being given vinegar, instead of water, when he requested a drink at his crucifixion. Another dramatic convention is the characters use of monologue to convey the words and actions of Morena during most of the play. This strategy implies that the action involves three characters, rather than the two men that audiences actually see. Morena is not characterized with his own voice until the final scene of the play. This use of monologue to permit virtual conversation between two actual characters and one virtual character is also used to present an invisible interviewer, who canvasses South Africans about the blessings and miracles they seek from the Savior.

Critical Context
Woza Albert! is regarded as South Africas finest example of social theater, and the collaboration between Ngema and Mtwa, two black playwrights, and Simon, a white producer, was a significant relationship that crossed the color barrier. Theater served as a vehicle for educating white audiences about the horrors of apartheid and became a vehicle for black self-expression during this period when other, more direct forms of social criticism were banned. After Woza Albert! Mtwa continued to present the political realities of South African life in his play Bopha! (1986), which dramatized the conflicts between two brothers who have different interpretations of their functions as black policemen serving the white South African government. Simons innovative Market Theatre continued to thrive, even after his death in 1995. Ngema went on to receive international acclaim for Asinamali (pr. 1983) and for Sarafina (pr. 1987). Revolutionary anti-apartheid theater emerged in 1973 after the premier of Athol Fugards play, The Island (pb. 1974), making plays such as Woza Albert! and Ngemas Sarafina and Asinamali possible. While the authorities attempted to ban such protest theater, the playwrights insisted that instead of being defined as protest theater, their art should instead be viewed as a celebration of surviving their life experiences. It is ironic that upon Mandelas release from Robben Island in 1990, the international media behaved similarly to the way in which Mtwa, Ngema, and Simon envisioned they would upon Morenas return. Mandelas freedom made several plays in the political protest genre irrelevant with their lines demanding that Mandela Themes and Meanings 3

Woza Albert!: Woza Albert! be released, but the end of apartheid and Mandelas release signaled a new era in which playwrights have the freedom to address concerns and social aspirations.

Sources for Further Study

Fuchs, Anne. Re-Creation: One Aspect of Oral Tradition in the Theatre in South Africa. Commonwealth Essays and Studies 9 (Spring, 1987): 32-40. Jenkins, Ron. South African Political Clowning: Laughter and Resistance to Apartheid. In Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Vicki K. Janik. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Ngaboh-Smart, Francis. The Politics of Black Identity: Slave Ship and Woza Albert! Journal of African Cultural Studies 12 (December, 1999): 167-185. Tompkins, Joanne. Dressing Up/Dressing Down: Cultural Transvestism in Post-colonial Drama. In The Body in the Library, edited by Leigh Dale and Simon Ryan. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998. Copyright Notice 2008, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this work covered by the copyright hereon may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, Web distribution or information storage retrieval systems without the written permission of the publisher. For complete copyright information, please see the online version of this work:

Critical Context