The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Woza Albert! is a twenty-six-scene, quick-action play, whose succession of vignettes of black life during South Africa’s apartheid period shows the absurdity of racial oppression. It also illuminates the logic of a plot in which South Africans seek the return of a savior, Morena, who fulfills the biblical prophecy that Jesus Christ will return. The play’s title means “Rise Albert,” referring to the deceased leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Luthuli and symbolizing biblical prophecies that the dead will rise to join Jesus Christ when he is resurrected. At the conclusion of the play, Morena goes to the cemetery to raise Luthuli from the dead (as Jesus miraculously raised Lazarus in the New Testament) and to summon other prominent past leaders, including Robert Sobukwe, Lilian Ngoyi, and Steven Biko, to rise and make South Africa a “heaven on earth” for blacks by addressing the atrocities of apartheid.

The stage for Woza Albert! is sparsely set with two tea chests and a suspended wooden plank with nails that hold the ragged clothes that the actors use for character transformations. The actors wear pink clown noses held with elastic bands around their necks for use in scenes in which they portray white characters.

Brief chronological scenes reveal a thematic unity as the two characters demonstrate the types of relationships and encounters that exist within South African society. For example, in the opening scene, a policeman interrogates a South African entertainer about the expiration of his passbook, a permit that allows him to work and move about freely. The injustice of the episode is clear, but scene 2 confirms that such an offense leads to jail time...

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Woza Albert! Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Woza Albert! creatively makes use of satire and humor as a way of balancing sharp political commentary. The quick scene changes and the two-man, revue-style cast to cover more than one dozen different characterizations prevent the audience from being overwhelmed. The most visible prop, the clown nose used to designate white male characters, symbolizes the buffoonery, absurdity, and cowardice of the apartheid regime. Having the principal characters perform a multitude of roles under their real names gives the play a reality check and reminds audiences that these actor-playwrights have firsthand knowledge of the absurdity that they dramatize. In addition, many of the lines and words in the play are spoken in both Zulu and Afrikanns. The dramatic text provides translations.

The performers make use of mime, dance, music, song, and an impressive athleticism that sustains the energy of this ninety-minute, no-intermission play. Biblical symbolism grounds much of Morena’s action throughout the play. He is asked to perform miracles comparable to those of Jesus and with which audiences are likely to be familiar. In scene 18, there is an archetypal Judas figure whose dramatic betrayal is identical to the biblical betrayal, except for the fact that Morena confronts his Judas face-to-face. The audience is also challenged to identify other biblical symbolism, such as an instance when Morena is hungry and thirsty but is offered only salt and vinegar-flavored potato chips and a cola drink. This is similar to Jesus being given vinegar, instead of water, when he requested a drink at his crucifixion.

Another dramatic convention is the characters’ use of monologue to convey the words and actions of Morena during most of the play. This strategy implies that the action involves three characters, rather than the two men that audiences actually see. Morena is not characterized with his own voice until the final scene of the play. This use of monologue to permit virtual conversation between two actual characters and one virtual character is also used to present an invisible interviewer, who canvasses South Africans about the blessings and miracles they seek from the Savior.

Woza Albert! Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Fuchs, Anne. “Re-Creation: One Aspect of Oral Tradition in the Theatre in South Africa.” Commonwealth Essays and Studies 9 (Spring, 1987): 32-40.

Jenkins, Ron. “South African Political Clowning: Laughter and Resistance to Apartheid.” In Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Vicki K. Janik. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Ngaboh-Smart, Francis. “The Politics of Black Identity: Slave Ship and Woza Albert!Journal of African Cultural Studies 12 (December, 1999): 167-185.

Tompkins, Joanne. “Dressing Up/Dressing Down: Cultural Transvestism in Post-colonial Drama.” In The Body in the Library, edited by Leigh Dale and Simon Ryan. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.