Woza Albert!
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The Play
Woza Albert!
is a twenty-six-scene, quick-action play, whose succession of vignettes of black life duringSouth Africa’s apartheid period shows the absurdity of racial oppression. It also illuminates the logic of a plotin which South Africans seek the return of a savior, Morena, who fulfills the biblical prophecy that JesusChrist will return. The play’s title means “Rise Albert,” referring to the deceased leader of the AfricanNational Congress (ANC) and Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Luthuli and symbolizing biblical propheciesthat the dead will rise to join Jesus Christ when he is resurrected. At the conclusion of the play, Morena goesto 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, torise 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 thathold the ragged clothes that the actors use for character transformations. The actors wear pink clown nosesheld 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 relationshipsand encounters that exist within South African society. For example, in the opening scene, a policemaninterrogates 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 theirdesires for freedom and personhood as the actors transform themselves from prison inmates, who debate themerits of protest strategies versus religious perseverance, to train-hoppers, who debate religion and thepossibilities of Morena returning.Beginning in scene 7 the characters interview international figures, such as Cuban leader Fidel Castro, as wellas local South Africans about their thoughts and expectations regarding Morena’s possible visit to SouthAfrica. These interviews mock modern media and television strategies of sensationalizing events for the sakeof ratings, but as the characters transform into local South Africans, they reinforce the hopes and desires of anoppressed body of people. Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa adeptly reconstruct daily interactions that onewould encounter in Johannesburg by dramatizing conversations with a young meat-vendor, who sells rottenmeat; an old woman, who searches garbage cans for food; a barber, who works in an open-air market withonly a chair and old clippers; and a fragile, toothless old man, who shares a historical narrative in order toemphasize that Morena will be slaughtered if he chooses to come to South Africa.The foreboding seriousness of the old man’s prophecy has a limited effect as the next set of scenes comicallyportrays the national and international, media-frenzied, Hollywood-style anticipation of Morena’s arrival on a jumbo jet. “Film-makers” get full coverage of Morena’s arrival, only to discover that the man they thoughtwas 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 Morena’s arrival, but no groupanticipates the Savior’s arrival more than African men struggling to find work, keep work, and receive moneyin order to meet the needs of their families. Ngema and Mtwa perform the most elaborate action of the play in
Woza Albert!: Woza Albert!Woza Albert!1
scenes 16 and 18, when they scathingly demonstrate the exact nature of their day-to-day oppression by asystem that has no regard for their human needs, their freedoms, their wives, or their children.Inevitably, Morena arrives and, true to the play’s biblical context, performs modern miracles, is betrayed andcrucified, rises on the third day and resurrects South Africa’s past heroes, and triumphantly shows that thehuman spirit of South Africans will survive. The ritual repetition of a freedom song in the final scene signifiescelebration: “Our Lord is calling./ He’s calling for the bones of the dead to join together./ He’s raising up theblack 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 addressesoppression, labor, survival, separation of families between South African homelands and the cities, povertyand homelessness, police brutality, and political imprisonment. However, the play addresses three key themesthat have the most meaningful implications for theatergoers. Resisting oppression with religious faith is animportant theme of the play. This theme takes on ironic undertones because, in a society where there is suchinstitutionalized racism and systematic oppression, it seems hypocritical that the Afrikaner government is aself-proclaimed Christian nation. Thus, the metaphor of the Savior’s return is complex and appropriate for thetype of satire that Ngema, Mtwa, and Barney Simon created for the stage.Fantasizing a biblical prophecy in South Africa is ironic because all Morena’s miracles relate to the mundaneyet politicized struggles of South Africans. The play challenges people’s definitions of fantasy by testing theapartheid government’s commitment to Christianity and their anticipation and treatment of a black Savior. Inscene 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 blowto 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 promisesof Christianity, is that freedom is not a fantasy because the Bible and the Savior have promised that it ispossible for justice to reign on earth just as it does in heaven. In scene 22 the prisoners at Robben Island areperplexed with the fact that they, as prisoners, were given Bibles since the New Testament emphasizesfreedom through a belief in the Savior.The second coming of Christ, who is portrayed by the black Morena, internationalizes the apartheid struggleas a globally noteworthy situation and highlights another theme: Although the international media are readilywilling to cover Jesus’s return, the same media do not mobilize to demonstrate apartheid’s atrocities to theworld. This discrepancy indicts the international world for not helping South Africans gain freedom fromapartheid. Numerous international newspapers and periodicals are mentioned for converging on RobbenIsland 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 arrivalat 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 waswritten, most leaders were either imprisoned or deceased. The one free leader, Bishop Desmond Tutu, ismentioned as one of the first people with whom Morena meets upon his arrival. The playwrights also refer toNelson Mandela’s imprisonment on Robben Island, although the text mentions him only as “the agitatorimprisoned 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 alsodo these “feats” and that apartheid is so oppressive that the attainment of basic human rights requires
Woza Albert!: Woza Albert!The Play2
supernatural power. Morena’s resurrection of Luthuli, Sobukwe, Ngoyi, and Biko, among others, is asymbolic resurrection that becomes a call for new leaders to forge their way into the political struggle againstapartheid 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. Thequick scene changes and the two-man, revue-style cast to cover more than one dozen differentcharacterizations prevent the audience from being overwhelmed. The most visible prop, the clown nose usedto designate white male characters, symbolizes the buffoonery, absurdity, and cowardice of the apartheidregime. Having the principal characters perform a multitude of roles under their real names gives the play areality check and reminds audiences that these actor-playwrights have firsthand knowledge of the absurditythat they dramatize. In addition, many of the lines and words in the play are spoken in both Zulu andAfrikanns. The dramatic text provides translations.The performers make use of mime, dance, music, song, and an impressive athleticism that sustains the energyof this ninety-minute, no-intermission play. Biblical symbolism grounds much of Morena’s action throughoutthe play. He is asked to perform miracles comparable to those of Jesus and with which audiences are likely tobe familiar. In scene 18, there is an archetypal Judas figure whose dramatic betrayal is identical to the biblicalbetrayal, except for the fact that Morena confronts his Judas face-to-face. The audience is also challenged toidentify other biblical symbolism, such as an instance when Morena is hungry and thirsty but is offered onlysalt 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 Morenaduring most of the play. This strategy implies that the action involves three characters, rather than the twomen that audiences actually see. Morena is not characterized with his own voice until the final scene of theplay. This use of monologue to permit virtual conversation between two actual characters and one virtualcharacter is also used to present an invisible interviewer, who canvasses South Africans about the blessingsand miracles they seek from the Savior.
Critical Context
Woza Albert!
is regarded as South Africa’s finest example of social theater, and the collaboration betweenNgema and Mtwa, two black playwrights, and Simon, a white producer, was a significant relationship thatcrossed 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 SouthAfrican life in his play
(1986), which dramatized the conflicts between two brothers who havedifferent interpretations of their functions as black policemen serving the white South African government.Simon’s innovative Market Theatre continued to thrive, even after his death in 1995. Ngema went on toreceive international acclaim for
(pr. 1983) and for
(pr. 1987).Revolutionary anti-apartheid theater emerged in 1973 after the premier of Athol Fugard’s play,
The Island 
(pb. 1974), making plays such as
Woza Albert!
and Ngema’s
possible. While theauthorities attempted to ban such protest theater, the playwrights insisted that instead of being defined asprotest theater, their art should instead be viewed as a celebration of surviving their life experiences. It isironic that upon Mandela’s release from Robben Island in 1990, the international media behaved similarly tothe way in which Mtwa, Ngema, and Simon envisioned they would upon Morena’s return. Mandela’sfreedom made several plays in the political protest genre irrelevant with their lines demanding that Mandela
Woza Albert!: Woza Albert!Themes and Meanings3
be released, but the end of apartheid and Mandela’s release signaled a new era in which playwrights have thefreedom 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
Woza Albert!
Journal of AfricanCultural 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.
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