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Evita for President

 

REVIEWS OF PIETER-DIRK EISH! / EVITA FOR PRESIDENT IN JOHANNESBURG  —  FEBRUARY / MARCH 2007

 

Pieter Dirk: Eish — Evita for President

– Anton Krueger, LitNet, 26 February 2007

 

I recently saw a scratchy old video copy of One Man One Volt (an Evita show from 1992) and I must admit I was pretty shocked to see what a savage barometer it was of those tumultuous years of the interregnum. Much of the show would be taken in very bad taste by today's audiences, I'm sure, such as gags about dogs trained to hunt blacks, and a wit wolf scoffing the brains of a black baby. Last night's show was a lot softer than that rather brutal portrait of a psychotic national psyche.

 

Perhaps bad taste becomes more palatable when it concerns contemporary issues (what comedian, can, after all, get by without it?), or it could be that Uys has mellowed over the years? Uys still relentlessly pursues whole pastures of sacred cows (such as in his truly superb rendition of >Mother Theresa in green Crocs running the switch-board in heaven), and yet there is something milder about the flavour of his cynicism. Although he still mercilessly ridicules the people in power, his tone seems warmer, less angry.

 

It's a grand show, in a uniquely South African tradition. Uys starts off with some of his old-time favourites like Adrian Vlok and Pik Botha and works his way through a string of post-apartheid politicians, impersonating Zuma, Tshabalala-Misimang, Selebi, Pahad, Manuel, Asmal et al. Each of these caricatures is distinctly refined and I admired the performer's whole-hearted embrace of each figure, right down to the smallest movements of the joints in his fingers. But I think that where Uys really hits home is with his characterisation of ordinary people. The rich and powerful whom he presents are little more than sketches, but with his ordinary women — Mrs Patel, Mrs Petersen and the Jewish liberal whose name escapes me — he manages to create real characters. One of my favourite new additions must be Mrs Petersen, who runs a junk shop and introduces the first jokes about Muslims into Uys's repertoire, including a number on suicide bombers ("Yes, you get 27 virgins, but they're all Jewish Sandton Kugels").

 

The infectious laughter came thick and fast, but there were also occasionally deadly interjections which abruptly silenced the audience into awkward acknowledgement. For example, when Mrs Petersen mentions the discrimination against coloureds, who are now considered too white for affirmative action, she points out that the apartheid government made no such distinctions when it came to employment opportunities or education, and that the coloureds were also subjected to forced removals back in the day for being too black.

 

Perhaps Uys is at his most heartfelt when addressing issues of poverty, and it is here that one catches a glimpse of his compassionate and generous nature. This is the other side of this stand-up comedian – he is also a man who poured his time and money into a single-handed national Aids campaign; who currently helps to train cultural communities in Darling to support themselves; and who contributes regularly to The Big Issue, the magazine run by homeless people. Besides dispelling fears by speaking boldly about issues which many are too afraid to address, Uys is also a true humanitarian.

 

I was also reminded during the show of just how much South Africans have in common with one another. Granted, this was a theatre-going community, but still, here were people from many walks of life able to laugh at the same jokes. In the old video from '92 there are a few sheepish black faces in the crowd, but last night the audience at The Market was more black than white. Judging by the relentless laughter, the continuous applause, and the appreciative running commentary on every punch line coming from the row behind me, there was a true sense of community in the theatre which made me feel somehow connected, in some way South African.

 

This is, after all, one of the remarkable things which theatre is able to do, to momentarily create a sense of communitas. And in this community the audience is as important as the performer. Arthur Miller once wrote that theatre practitioners and theatre-goers form their own community outside of the categorisations of country and class, and that "the playwright is nothing without his audience. He is one of the audience who happens to know how to speak. We are a kind of church."

 

I felt that despite the bad news with which one is constantly being bombarded (for example, about the recent fumbling with Lotto money earmarked for last year's Pansa festival, which has still not been released, and Aubrey Sekhabe's expenditure of the State Theatre budget last year on Gumboots, which meant that the run of Hedda Gabbler had to be cancelled) — despite talk of mismanagement and financial irresponsibility, the main component of any theatre remains the audience, and last night an appreciative audience was out there in full force. Perhaps it is the audiences who hold the real power. Miller goes on to warn that "if the parishioners are no longer interested in that church, you know what happens. It becomes a garage or a grocery store" (1996:524).

 

At the end of the show, Uys invites members of the audience to say what they would change in the country if they could, encouraging them to take an active part in democracy, to practise making their voices heard. After having just had a proudly nationalistic moment sitting there as part of this splendid theatre community, I must admit that the responses eventually eked out of my fellow audience members now made me feel, after all, somewhat queasy about being South African: "I want more money," says the black guy; and "Shoot all the taxi drivers," says the white. "Come on!" I wanted to shout out from the back row, "What about more money for arts, less military spending?" But I turned out to be too shy for this bravado.

 

I thought that these answers revealed much to throw light on the perennial question of just what it is that's wrong with this country. People are forever accusing external factors like "government" or "crime" or "whites" or "blacks" or whatever. Everybody loves to blame these abstract outside forces for their own unhappiness; but these two answers spoke volumes about what's really at stake here at a gut level among ordinary people: an insular, selfish closed-minded egotistical thinking which can't see beyond the petty confines of the smallest circle of one's personal life and private comforts. I mean, how giving this one guy more money and clearing the taxis out of the way for the other is going to help improve the country God only knows. Surely what we need is more generosity, more compassion, more love, more understanding, more forgiveness, more open-heartedness, more kindness, more warmth. More people like Pieter-Dirk Uys. And, of course, more money for the arts.

 

Reference

Miller, Arthur. 1996. The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller. Edited with an introduction by Robert A Martin and Steven Centola. Da Capo Press: New York.

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THEATRE. Pieter-Dirk Eish!

– Mary Jordan, Business Day, 20 February 2007

 

RIGHT from the outset, from the very beginning of his acting career, Pieter-Dirk Uys has engaged with real life and real issues. Gravely chewing over the contentious topics of the time, his technique has been to strip away the pseudery and political cant, embracing our national differences with a message that comes with great gags and great characterisation. Coupling insolence with clear-sighted analysis, his skill has been to use a rambling, conversational style to force his audiences into considering balanced alternatives in all areas of their lives. Any satirist who makes it his business to hold up to ridicule the vices and follies of his countrymen uses the tools of irony, sarcasm, invective and wit. 

Uys initially practised his craft at The Space Theatre in Cape Town, founded in 1972 by theatre photographer Brian Astbury and his actress wife Yvonne Bryceland, with the active involvement of Athol Fugard. The Space was the first pioneering fringe theatre in SA, ran on the smell of an oil rag, and was radical in its approach to all men and women, and to the forces that animated them. Its performing artists including Uys, Bill Flynn, Barney Simon and John Kani spelled out, in no uncertain manner, the ongoing tensions between individual rights and social institutions during the apartheid regime. They confronted the disturbing, the hidden and the suppressed. 

On the surface, Uys gradually developed into a perky populist, always concerned and involved with the scandals, lies and talking points of the day. He dissected the news on the Rialto and exposed misdemeanours and irrational behaviour, especially in those holding public office. He taught that a sense of humour encouraged the astute to see through superficiality, and that laughter defused righteous indignation to enable the practical thinker to come up with a workable solution for all ills. His front was a woman of purpose and clout: affable, eloquent and charming. Diplomat Evita Bezuidenhout was to be an arbiter of taste, a leader of society. If you had to build a composite portrait of her from the newspaper profiles that proliferate, you would be presented with an archetypal politician, tough and straight-talking. 

But something was happening to Uys as he matured and mellowed. He was developing a clever, deep and constructive sense of irony. First, as Jung would say, Uys had to admit to its complexity. Then he grew to know its shadows. This gloom, this darkness, made him acutely aware of the difference between good and bad, success and failure, and his burgeoning knowledge and insight made him wholly appreciate the zones of folly and ignorance. For a period then, Uys forsook the public stage and the spotlight for the veld and the thorn tree, to talk to schoolchildren in rural areas about AIDS awareness. A growing and appreciative following attested to the vitality of his educational work. 

Creatively, in PIETER-DIRK: EISH!, now showing at The Market Theatre, Uys has now reached a pinnacle of supreme artistry. Suddenly there is tension in the body, voices and personalities of the people he portrays. Although he is to go daringly near the knuckle, a new detachment and boldness taunts and tests the bogus in our everyday lives; and a great sadness permeates his lethal wit. Where once Uys used laughter to seduce audiences into recognising and admitting the unacceptable, now there is, as Kenneth Halliwell wrote: Evil to look back on, nothing to look forward to, and pain in the present. This is the skill of a master clown, someone who knows that comedy does not help you escape from the truth, but highlights it. 

Uys challenges assumptions, tests limits and crosses boundaries. His cameos of Afrikaner and African National Congress politicians, Indian, Jewish and Muslim women, and of a toothless Cape bergie, express a common nervousness, doubt and lack of certainty. Here are vulnerable people who are afraid, who feel guilty, and who know they will be jumped on if they say anything that could be implied as prejudice. Wittiest of all is a Mother Theresa, very like Whoopi Goldberg, who points out that heaven is not at all that she was taught to expect, or indeed imagined. She suggests that while life is full of horror, heaven is too. 

This is no gentle ride. As Uys plots the change, he reveals that with it comes loss, and loss is an uncomfortable feeling. Yet the combative satirist insists on promoting and not silencing the loud diversity of opinion essential to our new democracy.

 

Here is the calm authority of acting genius.

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Eish! In the midst of pain the Mzansi arts revival lifts our African spirit

– Justice Malala, Sowetan, 19 February 2007

 

A few friends hauled me out last Wednesday evening to watch Pieter-Dirk Uys’ Pieter-Dirk: Eish! – Evita for President at the Market Theatre.

 

I laughed from the beginning, when this accomplished satirist walks in and starts impersonating Adriaan Vlok washing black people’s feet.

 

In a week of terrible news, as I point out above in my reflection on the murder of Thato Radebe, it was good to have our faults and foibles laid bare and laughed at.

 

The satire is harsh, uncomfortable at times, but supremely entertaining. A laugh a minute, I urge Sowetan readers to do themselves a favour and go and see this show.

 

It offers a hilarious, nuanced take on our politics, our history and the many ineffectual buffoons — such as former National Party foreign minister Pik Botha — who tried to lead us.

 

A few weeks ago I saw Born Thru the Nose, also at the Market Theatre. It was very good and I was glad to see that it has attracted good audiences. Bheki Mkhwane, who manages to play six different roles with aplomb, was electrifying.

 

Another play causing a storm is The Suitcase. This classic, by Eskia Mphahlele and adapted by actor and director James Ngcobo, seems to be hitting the right note. When I called to book, I was told that it was full for six nights.

 

There is so much happening it seems a revival of South Africa’s art is taking place. One act I would love to see is the Soweto Gospel Choir. The choir recently won the Best Traditional World Music Award at the 49th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. What an honour! What prestige!

 

President Thabo Mbeki was right when he said their achievement was another testimony to the richness of South Africa and Africa’s contribution to humanity.

 

“Through their unique African gospel music, the choir continues to bring joy to audiences around the world,” he said.

 

I could not agree more. It always saddens me when I see our artists performing to empty venues. Thankfully, from what I have seen at the Market Theatre this past month, our people really are supporting our artists.

 

The shows I have seen are very good indeed and worth every cent you pay.

 

Go see them. Enjoy!

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