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Pieter-Dirk Uys

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Adapt or Fly — reflecting on the collective long walk to laughter

Audience members hear what they have just read on their iPhones, writes Pieter-Dirk Uys

– Pieter-Dirk Uys, Business Day, 20 March 2017

Now in my 71st year, it felt right for me to have the courage to step out of the fantasies of Evita Bezuidenhout, Bambi Kellermann, Nowell Fine, the Bothas, the Mandelas, the Zumas and the rest of my satirical cluster, and tell the stories behind the story. So, I took a deep breath and ventured into this minefield without the usual security blankets of wigs, eyelashes, make-up, carnations or rosettes. The Echo of a Noise is just me telling my audience the ups and downs of an unfamiliar journey: growing up in the SA of the 50s, 60s and 70s surrounded by a Eurocentric culture of music, art, facts and fiction, while discovering a forbidden world of African treasures: stories, languages, a struggle, a system of separate development and a hidden photo under the mattress of Prisoner 466/64.

My parents gave me the basis on which I built my life: humour, music, fun and many denials. I only found out my mother was Jewish after her death. Then the theatre hijacked me and I have been in life imprisonment on stage since then as an entertainer. I share my friendship with Sophia Loren and Nelson Mandela, my hopes and optimism for our future.

This doesn’t mean that I have left politics outside in the winds of change. The tsunami of my first one-man show, Adapt or Dye, crashed on the rocks of National Party rule in 1981.

After having all my plays banned by the censors, the only survival was to make fun of my fear and impersonate the people who were ruling with their rusty rods of iron: PW Botha, Pik Botha, Piet Koornhof, etc. I also introduced an Afrikaans Tannie eventually called Evita who is still the most famous white woman in SA.

Now, in this 23rd year of our democracy, I present what I call Episode 2017. It is called Adapt or Fly, a title a politician gave me before he found his red beret. It reflects our collective long walk to freedom from DF Malan, JG Strydom, HF Verwoerd, BJ Vorster, PW Botha and FW de Klerk — as well as the rainbow regimes of Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma.

Pik pops in with his ANC scarf and Mrs Peterson celebrates the mock in democracy on the Cape Flats. Nowell Fine, now in her late seventies, is still with me. When confronting the realities of life in this 21st century, and especially in our democracy, I still use the definition of 49% anger versus 51% entertainment when I structure an onslaught against the targets of fear.

Yes, I have a careful structure for the show, a familiar framework of characters and attitudes, but the doors, windows, chimney, creepers, roof and drains of this house of cards I add every night depend on the news of the day. The show is live, so often the audience see and hear from my stage what they have just read on their iPhones or heard on the radio.

There is a difference between comedy and humour. Comedy is the joke. You laugh at it and only remember it to tell it to someone else. Humour is a very personal reaction mainly to fear. You laugh at it, not because it’s funny (which it seldom is), but because you are confronting it maybe for the first time and realise that even though it is lethal, it can be controlled because you are keeping your eyes on it. It’s when you look away from fear through fear, that it wins.

Evita is always a step ahead of the chorus. She is the star of her own extravaganza and if there is good reason for her to join the fray she will. As a member of the ANC, she is trying to sort out that minefield of politics in Luthuli House. Yet, after Brexit and the recent American presidential election, world politics has a direct influence on everything that develops in SA. The gems of logic from our president are as priceless as the utterances of the 45th president of the US, while Julius Malema and the Teletubbies of the EFF never let me down.

The proposed law against hate speech might decapitate a few choice gags and demand a reinvention of how you call a spade a shovel without falling foul of the duvet of self-censorship. Luckily, Mrs Bezuidenhout has no time for trivial pursuits. She still refers to me as a third-rate comedian. But she is determined to travel the country whenever she can and reflect for fellow citizens her optimism and where we come from, so we can all celebrate where we are going. Evita wants us to fall in love with SA again.

My definition of optimism is: expecting the worst, hoping that the worst will never be as bad as I imagine. So far so good. The onslaught of bad news can so easily overrun any focus on what is good around us.

And yet there are far more good people in our country than bad ones: good politicians, good teachers, good lawyers, good ministers, good mums and dads — and very important, good gogos and tatas. I try to focus on what works, on what matters, on what enriches — and keep the poison and the stickiness of disappointment at bay.

Did we whites ever think that we would one day get away with apartheid? We did. There were no Nuremberg Trials. None of us was hung like Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity. A man came out of 27 years of darkness and gave us light — and Eskom gave up!

I am concerned that too many of our citizens see voting as a tiresome chore, or vote for a party because they see no alternative. We don’t do enough homework. We don’t use those five years between general elections as a study period, so that we pass the exam at the end of the five years with confidence in the future. If we are lazy, we will allow the energetic, ambitious and corrupt choices to win. The buck stops with us.

I will never make fun of the fears of my audiences. Every parent rightly has worries about the future of their children. Education is all, and yet getting staler and blander by the month.

I now suggest to my friends when they ask what they should give their grandchildren as a gift: give them a language. Pay for two years of classes in Chinese, Xhosa, Spanish, or English and arm them with the weapon of choice: communication.

A sense of humour is more individual than a fingerprint, and so I nurture mine with great care. I can still laugh when someone slips on a banana peel. Bad me! More often I prefer to laugh at and with my cats. And, hopefully, I can and will laugh when pompous inept politicians fall headfirst into the long drop of corruption.

I love living in Darling. It’s one hour from the Cape Town International Airport, which means it’s one hour from New York or London. And thanks to the miracle of Google, YouTube, Twitter and the rest of the internet highway, one doesn’t have to live in the war zone of a city.

Country life isn’t a Walt Disney dream either; we have all the problems of the city: crime, drugs and tik, HIV/AIDS, unemployment, etc, but there are no statistics, just the names of people. That helps us all not to forget that life is about people and not profit or politics.

I try to take my 60-minute entertainment For Facts Sake to schools whenever and wherever I can. It now goes beyond HIVAIDS. We touch on sexual harassment, voting, reconciliation and hope — and I use the f-word to fight fear: "fun".

And so I stand ready for the future with my three weapons of mass distraction: a memoir called The Echo of a Noise soon also in Afrikaans as Weerklink van ’n Wanklank; a political sosatie called Adapt or Fly (Episode 2017) and a state of the nation address by the most famous white woman in SA. Alaughta continua!

• The Echo of a Noise runs from March 22 to April 9 at the Studio Theatre Montecasino

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