Archived 2008 Articles about  Pieter-Dirk Uys

A farce to be reckoned with

– Brian Jewell, Bay Windows, 2 April 2008

"I do hope I offend everyone just once," says South African satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys with a twinkle in his eye. We’re chatting in a snug dressing room at Zero Arrow Theater, where American Repertory Theater will present Uys’s latest show, Elections and Erections. Down the hall, techs and stagehands bustle around the performance space, which is currently halfway between a black box and a sleek cabaret. Uys, too, is looking a little less snazzy than he will when previews begin Thursday night, and he dons the matronly drag of his most famous character, Mrs. Evita Bezuidenhout. But in an unexpected bit of theater, a wig on the shelf behind him seems to hover above his head.

Uys has gone from underground performer to national institution since he began lampooning South African policies and politicians in the 1970s. Skirting censorship in a skirt, Uys attacked apartheid under the guise of his comic characters. The beloved Bezuidenhout, for instance, dubbed "the most famous white woman in South Africa," is the smugly clueless embodiment of the arrogance of the upper class, a bit of cheekiness that pales next to his impersonations of the likes of Nelson Mandela and P.W. Botha. Yet Uys made his points so deftly, with such a charming blend of wit and warmth, that he’s even a favorite of the politicians.

Uys describes his act as "49 percent anger and 51 percent entertainment," a balance he admits is difficult to maintain. "Sometimes I get so bloody angry," he says, "but that just doesn’t work. So I need the theater, the hair and the fun, to deflate the fear."

Though apartheid is long dead, Uys still finds plenty to get angry about. "In the old days," he muses, "it was quite easy because you knew who the enemy was. Apartheid was very simple. Now there are no bad guys, there are just crooks and careless people. And that’s universal. The democratic crooks have restructured democracy to suit themselves."

Although the inspiration for Elections and Erections grew out of current affairs in Africa, don’t expect a safely distant show that appeals to liberal white guilt. Uys isn’t blowing smoke when he talks about the universality of Elections’ themes, and he is constantly reinventing the show while on tour.

"I don’t want to just take you on a world cruise to South Africa," he chuckles. "It is very important to be relevant here. I have an enormous amount of American material." The already energetic Uys gets even more animated as we discuss the American presidential race. He is excited about the hope that Barack Obama represents, though he quickly cautions, "I’m not here to do a political campaign for any of them.

"Bush and Kerry was chicken feed compared to the fun now," he giggles. "I’m starting this show with a Hillary Clinton look-alike, so we’ll see where the hecklers are right away. We just found a hairpiece for her," he adds, gesturing to the wig behind him. It’s a bit mullet-ish, but some styling will work wonders. This sparks a memory of starting his last London show with a bombshell.

"I came on stage in a burka," he recalls, "and they ran for the door. And then I lift it up and say, ’This is the only way to get a seat on the bus!’ They did not think that was funny. It’s interesting to see where the sensitivities are." But confronting and defusing those fears is what Elections is all about. "When you look away, the fear just becomes bigger and bigger."

"And the world is becoming so small, " he continues. "Your fears are our fears. This show is about democracy and sex, so it has echoes in everyone’s life. Although in South Africa, that’s an alphabet we’re still learning.

"The title, Elections and Erections, that doesn’t come from Bill and Hillary. Those are things that have been illegal for most of my life. I was 50 before I was allowed an opinion through democracy. And sex ... well, first of all you didn’t talk about it. And a lot of sex in South Africa was illegal. It was illegal to have sex with someone of a different color, or the same sex.

"Now we are free, but only free to fight for the right to be free tomorrow. Democracy is messy...and it can be a Valium, because people think they don’t have to care anymore. People don’t watch the news because they don’t believe it, or they’re too frightened." But if pop culture can be a palliative, it can also be used as a tool.

"The weapon of mass distraction, which is humor, can go a long way," says Uys, summing up his approach. "My characters are tanks disguised as Cadillacs."

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