Analysis

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556

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Woza Albert! is a short play set as a series of vignettes that explores the struggles and oppression of black South Africans in the time of apartheid. The play itself consists of actions carried out by two cast members using a sparsely decorated set. The play is set in twenty-six individual scenes and satirizes the entire apartheid system in South Africa including the mistreatment of black Africans in the workforce, the sensational nature of media, and the hypocrisy of Christian religion among white South Africans.

The satire plays out in many different areas of the play, but in particular, the religious narrative stands out as central to its message. The play focuses on the coming of “Morena” (translated to Lord in English) who is Jesus Christ come again and shows how those in the apartheid system react to Christ’s return. The early interviews in scenes 7 through 13 show the reactions of people to the news of Christ’s return. The interviews serve different purposes in showing the thoughts and feelings of South Africans, while also creating a link to future ideas discussed in the play, like communism.

The interview with Fidel Castro in the seventh scene sets up the idea that the connection between Christ and communism is tenuous at best. When asked about Morena, Castro responds, “Morena in South Africa? Whose playing the part? Ronald Reagan?” The response of Castro in this scene highlights the irreligious nature of communism and mocks the idea that simply because Christ wants to help the poor and oppressed, that he is a communist—a charge that is leveled at him later in the play.

The scenes of other interviews explore the different oppressive systems that exist in South Africa, and the responses of those black South Africans interviewed show why the system itself is unjust. For example, Auntie Dudu is a destitute woman that eats scraps from the garbage—her response shows the inability of the apartheid system to treat people with dignity because she responds in her interview that, “That would be very good. Because everybody will be happy and there will be lots and lots of parties. And we’ll find lots of food here (Indicates bins).” The responses of everyone interviewed expose more of the inherent issues with the system and the hypocrisy of the white South Africans.

The prediction of one South African interviewed comes true when he says, “Kill the wizards . . . And that is what will happen to Morena here in South Africa.” He explains using an old story from before colonization to explain that Christ will not be welcome in South Africa because those in power do not want his message to come into conflict with the Apartheid. His prediction comes true when Christ is later arrested for being an “agitator” and held in various prisons. When the white government can’t keep him in prison they drop a bomb and destroy the entire city of Johannesburg. While their response is obviously exaggerated, the hyperbole serves to show the distinct differences between the true teachings of Christ and those beliefs that white South Africans hold about what Christ teaches and permits. That discrepancy is brought to a head at the very end of the play when Morena goes around a cemetery and raises the dead leaders of South Africa’s black power movements.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716

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 for the offender. The successive scenes demonstrate South Africans’ reduced quality of life and their desires for freedom and personhood as the actors transform themselves from prison inmates, who debate the merits of protest strategies versus religious perseverance, to train-hoppers, who debate religion and the possibilities of Morena returning.

Beginning in scene 7 the characters interview international figures, such as Cuban leader Fidel Castro, as well as local South Africans about their thoughts and expectations regarding Morena’s possible visit to South Africa. These interviews mock modern media and television strategies of sensationalizing events for the sake of ratings, but as the characters transform into local South Africans, they reinforce the hopes and desires of an oppressed body of people. Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa adeptly reconstruct daily interactions that one would encounter in Johannesburg by dramatizing conversations with a young meat-vendor, who sells rotten meat; an old woman, who searches garbage cans for food; a barber, who works in an open-air market with only a chair and old clippers; and a fragile, toothless old man, who shares a historical narrative in order to emphasize that Morena will be slaughtered if he chooses to come to South Africa.

The foreboding seriousness of the old man’s prophecy has a limited effect as the next set of scenes comically portrays the national and international, media-frenzied, Hollywood-style anticipation of Morena’s arrival on a jumbo jet. “Film-makers” get full coverage of Morena’s arrival, only to discover that the man they thought was Morena is merely a simple man, Mr. Smith, who is visiting his great-aunt Matilda.

With different motives, all levels of South African society begin to anticipate Morena’s arrival, but no group anticipates the Savior’s arrival more than African men struggling to find work, keep work, and receive money in order to meet the needs of their families. Ngema and Mtwa perform the most elaborate action of the play in scenes 16 and 18, when they scathingly demonstrate the exact nature of their day-to-day oppression by a system that has no regard for their human needs, their freedoms, their wives, or their children.

Inevitably, Morena arrives and, true to the play’s biblical context, performs modern miracles, is betrayed and crucified, rises on the third day and resurrects South Africa’s past heroes, and triumphantly shows that the human spirit of South Africans will survive. The ritual repetition of a freedom song in the final scene signifies celebration: “Our Lord is calling./ He’s calling for the bones of the dead to join together./ He’s raising up the black heroes./ He calls to them.”

Dramatic Devices

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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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 101

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.

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