Critical Context

Woza Albert! is regarded as South Africa’s finest example of social theater, and the collaboration between Ngema and Mtwa, two black playwrights, and Simon, a white producer, was a significant relationship that crossed the color barrier. Theater served as a vehicle for educating white audiences about the horrors of apartheid and became a vehicle for black self-expression during this period when other, more direct forms of social criticism were banned. After Woza Albert! Mtwa continued to present the political realities of South African life in his play Bopha! (1986), which dramatized the conflicts between two brothers who have different interpretations of their functions as black policemen serving the white South African government. Simon’s innovative Market Theatre continued to thrive, even after his death in 1995. Ngema went on to receive international acclaim for Asinamali (pr. 1983) and for Sarafina (pr. 1987).

Revolutionary anti-apartheid theater emerged in 1973 after the premier of Athol Fugard’s play, The Island (pb. 1974), making plays such as Woza Albert! and Ngema’s Sarafina and Asinamali possible. While the authorities attempted to ban such protest theater, the playwrights insisted that instead of being defined as protest theater, their art should instead be viewed as a celebration of surviving their life experiences. It is ironic that upon Mandela’s release from Robben Island in 1990, the international media behaved similarly to the way in which Mtwa, Ngema, and Simon envisioned they would upon Morena’s return. Mandela’s freedom made several plays in the political protest genre irrelevant with their lines demanding that Mandela be released, but the end of apartheid and Mandela’s release signaled a new era in which playwrights have the freedom to address concerns and social aspirations.