articles from 2005

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Pieter-Dirk Uys on "Foreign Aids"

–  Robert Nesti, EDGE, 4 January 2005

Performance artist Pieter-Dirk Uys likes to describe himself as a “middle-aged, fat, bald Afrikaner Jewish drag queen from Cape Town,” the South African city where he grew up and first began performing some 30 years ago. Since then Uys (pronounce ACE) has become one of his country’s leading satirists whose work on stage includes some 50 plays and performance pieces, and a number of popular television series including one hosted his drag alter-ego Evita Bezuidenhout that drew comparisons to Dame Edna Everage.

Uys, though, finds such comparisons casual at best.

“Many people say Evita is South African answer to Dame Edna Everage,“ Uys explained recently from his home in Darling, South Africa, “and I say, if she’s the answer, what is the question? Barry Humphries and I are middle-aged men with good legs. I suppose that’s the only comparison. Dame Edna is hugely successful in America, but she’s less political. Evita is very political: she’s a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Eva Braun, with a touch of Sophia Loren in the eye make-up. I guess if she had an American equivalent it would be Phyllis Schlafly. She got fangs.“

There’s little doubt that she’ll bare them as one of the characters in “Foreign Aids,” the one-person show that Uys brings to the American Repertory Theatre this week as part of that theater’s South African Festival after successful runs in Johannesburg, London, and New York.

Developed from his experiences performing AIDS education in the townships over the past few years, “Foreign Aids” offers a blistering look at the grimly surreal health crisis that is crippling South Africa. Just look at the statistics: with some 5.3 million infected, the country leads the world in the number of reported cases; yet the country’s President, Thabo Mbeki, doubts that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus.

“The biggest problem now is that the government is in denial. President Thabo Mbeki still questions if HIV leads to AIDS, and it’s confusing. We don t even call it AIDS — it’s called “slimming disease,“ “the slimming sickness.”  600 people are dying every day because of government carelessness, and that is chilling. To confront this, I think, is to focus on the fear. And that’s why I use humor — to laugh at the fear, and to make it less fearful. The show is about our struggle: not the struggle against racism, but the struggle against another virus — the HIV virus.

“The racism is never going to go away,” he continued.  That’s also a virus with no cure. But apartheid was a simpler target for satire because it was bad. There were good guys and bad guys. There was good and evil, black and white. But with HIV, there are no bad guys. There are frightened people, and the frightened people are also in government, and because they don’t want to confront it, it’s become a non-event; but it’s too serious to ignore.”

Yet despite Mbeki’s statements, Uys remains a supporter of the leader.

“He s not a bad guy. In fact, I’m a member of the ANC. I support the government. I voted for him. I’m very proud of our democracy. But politicians are my scriptwriters. I often say that politicians are like monkeys. The higher they climb the pole of ambition, the more of their asses we can see, and after 10 years, there’s a lot of ass up there.”

Taking aim at politicians has long been the key to Uys’s success. During the struggle against Apartheid, he lampooned the white minority leadership in plays and solo shows, some of which were banned. Today he notes that most of his earlier targets are either “dead, in retirement, in disgrace, insane, incontinent, forgotten or recycled as avid supporters of the black majority rule.”

But he found himself at loose ends after the end of Apartheid a decade ago.

“Apartheid ended and my biggest target was gone. So I thought, what do I do know? I got to get a job? But democracy is also a very firm target — there’s a lot to be said about the fragility of democracy. In 2002 I suddenly realized the biggest target was HIV/AIDS in South Africa — the denials, the fears, the stigmas. That s where I’ve gone now. I’m back in business.”

Uys began by confronting his own fears about AIDS.

“I don t want to die of AIDS. I’m terrified of it. I’ve lost some friends to AIDS. That whole thing of ‘it can’t happen to me, therefore let’s not think about it’ is certainly not what I want to do as a satirist. I have to be very honest. I’ve got to be very brave going to the minefield with both feet. That’s where I am now. I’m not frightened. I’m still concerned, and I try to practice what I preach. But when I’m confronted with 1,000 kids under the age of 14, you realize how important the message is to say to them that they’re in charge of their lives. They have to be very careful. This is a virus that has no cure, so they have to take care. Abstinence is a great first world luxury, but in the third world there is often no choice. Kids are forced into sex — they’re raped and beaten. So you have to make them aware of how to protect themselves. Through humor as well. Sex can be very funny. There’s a lot of laughter in the piece as well. There are some absurd things that are happening, and we need to out  them with laughter.”

In the piece Uys plays some 12 characters, recognizable political figures and fictional characters such as Evita Bezuidenhout.

“She s the queen mother of my chorus line. And I have her sister Bambi Kellerman, I have Mbeki, I have Nelson Mandela. I do a Jewish African Princess. I have a whole collection of representative people who can actually put across not just a point of view, but this being theater, it’s got to be theatrical — you’ve got see the changes happening onstage. I’ve got to go from old man to young girl, to black man to white woman right in front of your eyes within a second. That’s my job.”

He considers Evita, who he calls “the most famous white woman in South Africa,” a clown figure in her relationship with AIDS. “Because she, like so many white Christian women, is terrified of the disease. But she won’t even address it because she feels it can’t happen to her. And because of her fear and her attitude, she represents so many people in the audience as well, so she’s very effective.”

Calling the piece “Foreign Aids” also gives Uys an opportunity to adapt the piece and the specific issues affecting audiences in different locales. For instance, here in the United States he comments on the current administration’s War on Terror, which he sees as analogous to a similar one conducted in South Africa by the white minority government in the 1980s.

“When I perform in the United Kingdom and America, I want my characters to reflect what’s happening in America, and there’s a lot happening in America. I’m terribly aware of where we were in the 1980s with P.W. Botha (the former South African president) and his war on terror. I’m afraid of hearing very similar words coming from George Bush and his war on terror. Terror is a great weapon for politicians to bludgeon their society into submission; and I’m afraid we went through it in the 1980s, and I’ve a frightened feeling it’s happening in America today.”

Uys acknowledges that playing “Foreign Aids” in a blue-state enclave like Cambridge is much like preaching to the converted, and that he would like to take the piece to the American heartland.

“I would love to. Because I understand the heartland. I’m an Afrikaner. We are the heartland here. Apartheid was only successful because of the Afrikaner heartland. The so-called moral high ground is something I have been fighting all my life because I understand the hypocrisy behind it, because it’s based on fear. The word abstinence is very important, but really, truly when 9 out of 10 people in my country don t have that luxury, it’s a dangerous word to use; because it cannot be used as a shield. If I can save one life here, my work has been worth it.

“What I say difficult to put across with lectures and finger-wags and speeches, because no one wants to hear that. Theater has a great way of getting under the finger nails and illuminating darkness with all sorts of tricks. And humor is a trick. And drag is a trick. I love getting my dress and my heels, and they say  look at those legs,  And then I hit them with a cold fish across their face.”

Performances of  “Foreign Aids” are now  through January 23 at the Zero Arrow Theatre, Zero Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are priced $35 -- $45, and are available at the Loeb Drama Center box office, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge; or by calling 617-547-8300. Note: special benefit performance January 18 at 7:30 p.m. for the AIDS Action Committee. Tickets: $75. Includes post-show reception with Pieter-Dirk Uys.

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