Archived 2005 Articles about  Pieter-Dirk Uys

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Facing the truth

With biting humor and a wig, Pieter-Dirk Uys takes on his homeland's history

– John Donnelly, The Boston Globe, 2 January 2005

DARLING, South Africa — Dressed in black, actor Pieter-Dirk Uys swept inside his theater complex in this rural town, patting the rubbery hair on a sculpture of Winnie Mandela. Then he lingered before a color portrait taken in 1983 of the wives of South Africa's apartheid leaders.Some smiled decorously out of the photo; others pursed their lips. Matronly hands were folded on matronly laps. They wore Margaret Thatcher hats. ''They look like drag queens!" Uys shrieked gleefully. ''Lovely!"

Uys, 59, then disappeared into a dressing room. He would emerge as Evita Bezuidenhout, whom he refers to as ''the most famous white woman in South Africa" — which, with apologies to Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, just might be true. After all, Evita has addressed Parliament. She's interviewed Nelson Mandela on TV. A large department store even sells an Evita line of perfume called ''Jeau Mour," which in Afrikaans sounds like ''Up yours."And now Evita will be live in Cambridge.

From Wednesday through Jan. 23, she performs in ''Foreign Aids" at the American Repertory Theatre's new Zero Arrow Theatre. In the one-person show, Uys (pronounced ''Ace") also transforms himself into Evita's sister, Bambi Kellermann, who was married to a now-dead Nazi fugitive.

But Uys is no more a drag queen than South Africa's leading ladies of old. When Evita is onstage, women think she is a woman, men forget she is a man, and she is gradually revealed as a one-woman Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the group that over two years brought together the aggressors and the wounded from South Africa's apartheid past in hopes of finding some measure of healing and understanding.

Only Evita has more of an edge. She carries a pistol in her fashionably pink handbag, not an olive branch of peace. She makes people laugh and, later, think. No one in her nation of 45 million people has so graciously leveled so many leaders and icons or caused so much reflection among those caught in the web of the horrendous days of apartheid as well as the country's imperfect present.

Uys's performances are part of the American Repertory Theatre's monthlong South African Festival that will take place in several Cambridge venues. It includes other live theater shows (Pamela Gien performs ''The Syringa Tree" through Jan. 16, and John Kani stars in his ''Nothing but the Truth" Jan. 21-30) and a long list of movies on South Africa.

The hope of the organizers is that South Africa's leading artists will give US audiences a better understanding of one of the great moments of the 20th century — South Africa's peaceful transition a decade ago from apartheid to democracy — as well as examine the direction of the country today.And there likely will be a few other surprises — with Uys, there's no doubt.As a young man, Uys studied theater at the University of Cape Town, moved to London, and decided after a few years the British were a bit too staid for him. He moved back to Cape Town, to the southern tip of Africa, at the time, in 1973, in the throes of great turmoil surrounding apartheid.

One of the apartheid laws was to ban mixed audiences. But theater groups in Cape Town then flouted the rule, regularly performing in front of whites, blacks, Indians, and Coloureds — the official South African designation for those of mixed race under the racially based apartheid system. Theater censors were erratic. Still, Uys, concerned that the state could shut him down at any time, switched from writing more costly plays to one-man revues.He walked that tightrope for nearly 20 years and never once fell. Censors tried, and failed, to close several of his shows. Evita, in particular, became, in the words of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, ''a legend."

In one show in 1987, Uys played then-apartheid leader P.W. Botha, who ruled South Africa during the 1980s. The character of Botha tells the audience, ''I have decided to end the problem of South Africa. I am going down the road to Pollsmoor Prison, and I'm going to unlock the door to the jail of Nelson Mandela, and I'm going to buy him a hamburger, and we're going to discuss what's going to happen to South Africa."

Uys said the audience reacted instantly. ''People wept," he said. ''It had to do with the simplicity of the idea, that all we needed to do was sit down and talk."

There's no doubt Uys often infuriated those in power then, as he does with today's leaders. There was a time he greatly upset his father as well, whom he said was ''brainwashed" by the system of apartheid. But his father also gave him invaluable advice.

''After one show, I came home and he was having a drink," Uys said one afternoon last month in his theater complex in Darling, a town of 5,000 people in the hills 40 miles north of Cape Town. ''He told me, 'I am so sick as your father that you come out with bad, offensive, vulgar words. Why can't you be clever enough to tickle me behind my ear, and my eye will find your finger there?' "

So Uys's humor gradually turned more subtle, and less vicious.

Evita, though, still utters lines that devastate. In an afternoon performance last month in Darling before an audience of 100 people, she asked if any foreigners were present. Three German tourists raised their hands.

''We Afrikaners are very indebted to you Germans," Evita said sweetly. ''You set a very high political standard for us."

Everyone laughed, even the Germans.

After the performance, Evita daintily walked into the garden outside the theater, still wearing the oversize dark glasses Uys says were a gift from Sophia Loren. Evita said in her high-pitched voice, ''Ooooh, I love doing Germans!"

Later, Uys, back in his black T-shirt and pants, having rid himself of Evita's wig and long, red fingernails, said when he did ''Foreign Aids" in Berlin, he didn't stop with the line about Germans setting a high political standard. ''Evita says, 'Oh, it would have taken us a long time to kill 6 million blacks.' People walk out of the theater on that line. Younger Germans applaud. Offending people is a great thing. I want to offend everyone at least once in that show."

In Cambridge, Evita will surely offend some with ''Foreign Aids," which is a reflection on South Africa's past as well as its problems today, including the AIDS pandemic. But Evita also will likely cast an eye toward America.

''Bush's America is what P.W. Botha's South Africa was — viewed around the world with contempt and a sense of absolute anger," Uys said in the Darling garden. ''He talks about having the 'moral high ground.' What rubbish! He uses fear, saying, 'I'll protect you.' P.W. Botha did that for us. It took F.W. de Klerk to defuse that fear, and literally South Africa changed overnight."It was de Klerk who reached out to Mandela, and the two negotiated an end to apartheid and the first democratic elections in 1994.

Uys does have fondness for former president George H.W. Bush, based on a chance encounter while flying from San Francisco to Miami. Bush sat in the plane's front row, surrounded by Secret Service agents; Uys sat right behind him. Uys had just been in London and was reading a newspaper article about a recent visit there by the senior Bush. Uys gave the newspaper to Bush.

''He reached in his pocket and took out money in a clip. I was horrified. I thought he was going to pay for the paper! But he gave me the money clip, which had a presidential seal on it, and said, 'This is to remind you of the good deed you did.' "

The two men talked. Bush asked why Uys was wearing a pin of the South African flag.

''Oh, I rule that country," Uys joked.

''You do? I thought Nelson Mandela did," Bush replied.

Uys explained about Evita Bezuidenhout and asked if Evita could interview the senior Bush.

''Oh, I'll have to ask Barbara about that," Bush said, laughing.

Uys doesn't like leaving Darling, where he settled about eight years ago after stumbling upon the town on a Sunday drive. It has one four-way intersection and not a single traffic light. The population is mostly mixed race. The round hills are brown now, but in August and September the surrounding fields are carpeted with wildflowers, drawing people from all over the world. This month, the life of Darling also will be a little less colorful in Uys's absence.

''He's had a great influence on this place," said Sandy Esau, 35, an artist of mixed race who was commissioned by Uys to paint a mural of the town, which hangs now in the theater complex, a former railway station. ''He's helped me a lot. For most of the [mixed-race] people here, though, they don't understand what he's doing. They say, 'What about this guy who is sometimes a lady?' "

Esau said he worries a little about Uys's pace. ''He's too busy," Esau said. ''I wish we had more time to talk."

Uys is in the midst of a particularly grueling period; he has done 300 shows in the last year, all over the world. He wants to stockpile funds in order to support his passion — giving free performances about HIV and AIDS in schools around South Africa.In these performances, more than 500 so far, he uses words that make teachers blush. He pulls out condoms, male and female, of all shapes and sizes. And he becomes furious onstage — especially in regard to South African president Thabo Mbeki, who at first delayed the government's reaction to AIDS and remains aloof in the battle. Mbeki, in fact, gets full-force Evita treatment.

Recently, after Tutu criticized the Mbeki government for not doing enough for the poor, Mbeki said Tutu had no right to say such things, questioning Tutu's integrity and his loyalty to truth.

Onstage in Darling, Evita said, ''Isn't life bizarre? Just look at our president, Thabo Mbeki. Now, many years ago, P.W. Botha wanted to silence Desmond Tutu. Now Thabo Mbeki was saying the same thing the other day. I never realized the two had so much in common."

At the conclusion of the show, Evita softens — just a little — about her country. ''We are not in a state of war," she said. ' 'We are in a state of grace. We have been given a second chance. We have proven to the world we can find reconciliation. Why, I was just telling the Arabs and the Jews they should just live together like us Christians." The audience roared. Evita, oblivious, pawed through her handbag.

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