Archived 1993 Articles about  Pieter-Dirk Uys

Throwing a Pie at Apartheid

Comedy: South African political satirist Pieter Dirk Uys has a love-hate relationship with his country

– Lawrence Christon, Los Angeles Times, 4 February 1993

When Uys' one-man revue "Beyond the Rubicon" played nationally on PBS in 1988, American audiences discovered a first-rate performing talent who dispensed a great deal of social and political comment, not by hectoring the converted, but by inscrutably concealing himself within a variety of South African prototypes and letting them speak for themselves.

Some of them were real, such as former Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha, and some fictional, including the wealthy Afrikaner busybody, Evita Bezuidenhout (who has been so skillfully maintained over the years, like Barry Humphries' Dame Edna Everage, that a lot of South Africans think she's a real person). The wonder of Uys' and his creations is that he could be so pointed while they could be so funny — not stupid funny, which is easy to do, but as people who are so richly and absurdly themselves that their comic presence is undeniable.

Another wonder is that it's taken so long for 47-year-old Uys (pronounced "Ace") to play the United States. But Williams College in Massachusetts recently invited him to lecture both as Evita and himself, and he's used the occasion as a kind of abbreviated national tour; he plays Los Angeles for one night on Saturday at Temple Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills.

"I'm on a contact high, being in your country for the first time," he said. "In South Africa, we've been breathing in for so long without breathing out that there's a terrible tension. Everybody's so hardened in their political positions." He swelled his chest defensively and stiffened, the actor demonstrating an attitude. "There's no conversation. Here, there's such humor and energy.

"I've seen everything about America in the movies, and it's a little strange to see things now in perspective. I never knew, for example, that the White House was so close a part of the city. I thought it was isolated in a park setting, like Buckingham Palace. And Disneyland! The silliness and freedom and fantastic release! But soon I'll be back in that strange country which has so many unofficial governments but where no one seems to be in charge."

Uys is only one of numerous impassioned talents to emerge from that "strange country," which bears so much of Africa's moral and political compression in a tapered base that hardens its artists like diamonds. Like many South Africans, Uys bears a love-hate relationship to his country.

"We're not as traumatized as Bosnia, we don't have food lines like Russia, and our debt is not as large as yours," he says, hopefully.

On the other hand, "The man in the street is losing hope because there's no law and order. Fathers are shooting the first person to enter their yard, to protect their daughters. It's like Beirut.

"It's logical, after 44 years of apartheid and 20 years of cultural boycott. Of a population of 32 million, 31 million are credibly decent people. The good is that people are adapting in good ways to the changes. The bad news is the terrible violence. The country's bankrupt. There's a whole menu of monstrosities. But at least we're out of the cul-de-sac of oppression and onto the freeway of democracy." (The ruling National Party hopes to have a representative democratic government in place by March, 1994).

In a country in which everyone, black, white and that peculiar designation, "coloured," (people of mixed race) seems almost breathtakingly caught up in history as though it were an ongoing suspense story, Uys is unusually well-connected. The Capetown son of concert pianists (his younger sister Tessa is also a concert pianist living in London), Uys is related to to D.F. Malan, South Africa's first Afrikaner prime minister, and to pioneers Pieter Uys and Dirk Uys, both of whom were killed in the Great Trek of 1836 and are memorialized in the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria.

Uys recalls an insular childhood, and a growing disenchantment with what white privilege implied.

"I was living the great lie of apartheid," he recalls. "It took me many years to formulate what it meant. I was so brainwashed."

Uys spent four years at the London Film School, but it was at Capetown's avant-garde Space theater that he discovered how apartheid separated him from his fellow actors once they stepped out the door. His innate sense of humor and satirical eye saved him: He began to write prolifically.

"Either one committed suicide or laughed," he says. "Of course the censor did a lot for me. When they asked what I did for a living, I said I was a political gossip. After all, the government wrote all my material for me. Who could improve on its natural absurdities?"

Uys quickly learned that a power elite does not like to be made fun of. His father joined the censor board (as a film devotee, he tried to ensure a relatively free flow of movies into the country). "He saw what people inside the armor of power were like; frightened people, drunks, out of touch."

This stiffened Uys' satirical resolve. So did his discovery of Evita, whom Uys concocted as a newspaper columnist when he couldn't get work in the legit theater ("All I ever wanted to do was work in the theater as a stage manager. But they'd say, 'No, darling, all you do is cause trouble.'")

By the time he went to the Market Theater in Johannesburg in 1978, he had developed a maturing sense of theatrical power. So did Evita. Up against the likes of Athol Fugard and Yvonne Bryceland, who were raising a new and compelling South African voice, Uys knew he had to do something different and Evita became it. "I have better legs than Athol," he says. In 1981 he premiered "Adapt or Dye," his 16th play and first one-man show, in which his talent to amuse scored a mainline hit. Audiences laughed at the government more freely than ever before.

Uys' stature has grown to the point where he's become a cultural fun-house mirror in which everyone likes to catch a self-glimpse. "Some years ago Desmond Tutu wrote to me and said, 'Why are you excluding blacks? Why aren't you doing us?' And gave me some of his rings." Tutu is now part of the act.

But like all true satirists, Uys is most at home beyond the pale. "Nothing is beyond satire, not God, cancer, AIDS — nothing. People tell me I shouldn't do Winnie Mandela; it's not politically correct. But I remind them there was a time when it wasn't correct to go after apartheid. What you do is make people think you're handing them a funny fuzzball, but when they grab it, it contains a razor-sharp arrow. It takes a minute for them to realize they've been cut."

Uys is optimistic about South Africa's future. "The cornerstone of my optimism is that South Africans are capable of extraordinary compassion. Look at Mandela, and how after spending 27 years in prison he could have such humor and forgiveness."

Uys also tells this story: "When the report came out that Mandela had been moved to a windowless room in Pollsmor prison, a lot of conservative Afrikaners said, 'We don't dispute his being jailed. But how can he be locked in a room without a view of this beautiful country?'"