Arts & Culture

South Africa’s ‘ace’

6 min read

Performer, provocateur Pieter-Dirk Uys holds his own satire up to examination

Pieter-Dirk Uys — satirist, performer, and social activist — grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, where two meaningful forms of expression were illegal: political and sexual.

The resultant gaps in his early life are the chief comic grist of Uys’ current one-man revue, “Elections and Erections: A Chronicle of Fear and Fun.” So is the humor that Uys (pronounced “ace”) improbably finds in his native land’s raging AIDS epidemic.

There are a thousand new HIV infections a day in South Africa, he told an audience at Zero Arrow Theatre this week (April 14), during a public conversation sponsored by the Humanities Center at Harvard.

Eventually, said Uys, the government of President Thabo Mbeke will be responsible for the “genocide” of 15 million poor and mostly black victims of the AIDS virus, he said — “succeeding, where apartheid failed.”

Despite the dark content, “Elections” is a fast and freewheeling foray into impressions, mock political speeches, and puppetry. It’s playing through May 4 at Zero Arrow Theatre, a production of Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.).

The 6 p.m. public conversation was with Humanities Center Director Homi K. Bhabha, who is Harvard’s Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities. The two men occupied a simple stage set — two chairs, and behind them a portrait of Evita Bezuidenhout.

She’s the fictional and fancy-mouthed matron — “the most famous white woman in South Africa,” Uys calls her — whose tacky glamour and right-wing sentiments he captures in full drag.

After decades of political and sexual oppression, Bhabha asked his guest, what was regime change like?

“It was a shock to find I had to find a proper job,” said Uys, who took every question as an invitation to perform (though seated) for the audience of 200. “It’s still a shock — how we got away with it,” he said of the transition to a black-majority government. “Suddenly it was legal to be illegal.”

Uys called apartheid, the engine of South African institutionalized racism from 1948 to 1994, “an appalling, bad copy of the Holocaust.” It was a time, he said, when “a chosen race of 900,000 [white] voters” held sway over 27 million people carefully categorized by color.

The African National Congress (a traditional political group eventually led by Nelson Mandela) “was our al-Qaeda all those years,” said Uys, the rogue scion of a politically connected family who for years scratched out a living with unofficially tolerated lampoons of South Africa’s racial policies. “Humor was my weapon of mass distraction.”

Humor was not only his weapon, he said. After the ANC came to power, Nelson Mandela — despite 27 years of imprisonment — employed it too. In 1995, with wit and grace, Mandela invited to tea “all the widows of all the prime ministers who had locked him up,” said Uys.

When he went back to work as a satirist, in 1996, “the act had to be reinvented,” said Uys. He decided to keep his white political figures of fun, add black ones, and add in too whatever dark humor he could cull from AIDS and the systematic nonresponse to the crisis from Mbeke’s government.

About 10 percent of all South Africans over age 2 are infected with HIV — more people than any other country in the world. To confront that, Uys brought his brand of sex education — funny, frank talk and dangling show-and-tell condoms — to 500 schools in South Africa, and so far has reached 1 million children.

“Freedom doesn’t mean you look the other way,” he told the Zero Arrow audience about his comic outreach, which is outrageous but — in the reconstituted South Africa — completely legal. “Freedom means you fight for freedom every day, to be free the next day.”

Bhabha asked about the comedian’s freedom to dress up as a woman. Is there discomfort — even terror — for him in that?

“Only when I’m overweight,” said Uys, an expert in Evita’s man-size high heels, glittery eyeliner, and puffy wigs. “My job is to lose weight for the woman who doesn’t exist.”

But Evita gets to go places that his male self could not, for lack of invitations, said Uys. “She’s crossed so many borders I could never do.”

That includes television interviews with political figures (a bewildered-looking Nelson Mandela, a laughing Desmond Tutu), and an address to the entire South African Parliament.

Add to all that Evita’s most improbable visit of all, to the pulpit of a Dutch Reform Church on Women’s Day (Aug. 9), a South African national holiday. (She arrived, said Uys, “with her black grandchildren.”)

But playing Evita has one downside, he said. “I miss my beard.”

Elections and erections — the alternating subjects of a lot of U.S. late-night television — are “both about fear,” observed Bhabha, looking for a comment from his guest.

“By not voting, you’re just as soft,” said Uys, whose stand-up comedy is often about standing up for the political process. “Getting an erection for an election means there’s a future.”

The future too is the young people, of course, said Uys, reflecting on “the best decision of my life” — his frank and forward AIDS outreach to schools. “I went to university to become a teacher,” he said of his own youth. “Then theater hijacked me.”

Homosexual men in South Africa have embraced safe sex, so they have a lesson for the straight world, said Uys. “Being gay is a job description.”

He wants his audiences, young or old, to be moved to thought and action by his comic revues. (His show “Foreign AIDS” was part of the A.R.T.’s South African Festival in 2005.)

Uys imagined a theatergoer leaving after a performance, and saying, “I’m quite excited about being angry about things now.”

Rape is widespread in South Africa too, along with violent street crime, he said. “I really don’t apologize for being pretty pissed off at my government.”

At the heart of comedy is anger, said Uys. Though tenderness has its uses too.

“Love your enemy,” he said. “It will ruin his reputation.”

The next public conversation co-sponsored by A.R.T. and the Humanities Center at Harvard, free and open to the public, will be at 6 p.m. May 5 at the Zero Arrow Theatre. Discussed will be ‘Cardenio,’ a lost Shakespeare play rescued and rewritten by Stephen Greenblatt, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, and by playwright Charles L. Mee. It’s playing May 10 through June 8 at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St.