Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305
Woza Albert! is a stage play by playwrights Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, and Barney Simon. The play is a mixture of political satire and fantasy. The first major theme of the play is the Apartheid era in South Africa. The play dissects the systemic oppression of black South Africans by the white South Africans who colonized the country. However, the playwrights use dark humor and science-fiction elements to depict serious topics such as racism, oppression, and authoritarianism.
The second major theme of the play is the story of Jesus Christ. The entire premise of the play is that the protagonist, a black man, is seen as the second coming of Christ. However, the apartheid regime imposes Calvinist beliefs on the population. The other prominent theme of the play, which is related to the second theme, is the missionary industry in South Africa. Missionaries—both Protestant and Catholic sects—have been conducting operations in South Africa since the start of its colonization by the Dutch and the arrival of the British.
The missionaries are seen as "arms" or extensions of imperialism, in which religion is used to convert and control the local indigenous black population. The fact that one of the main characters, a local black man, is seen as a second coming of Christ—who is oftentimes depicted as a white male in art despite being Middle Eastern in real life—illustrates the subversion of the colonialist's use of religion to oppress. Interestingly, this second coming of the "Christ" threatens the apartheid regime of Calvinists, which shows their hypocrisy and reveals that they are not true Christians. The government even goes as far as detonating a nuclear weapon to annihilate the main character. The absurdist element in the story mocks both western religion's hypocrisy and the West's history of warfare and oppression against other cultures.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 601
Woza Albert! has been criticized for doing too much in too little space, likely because the play addresses oppression, labor, survival, separation of families between South African homelands and the cities, poverty and homelessness, police brutality, and political imprisonment. However, the play addresses three key themes that have the most meaningful implications for theatergoers. Resisting oppression with religious faith is an important theme of the play. This theme takes on ironic undertones because, in a society where there is such institutionalized racism and systematic oppression, it seems hypocritical that the Afrikaner government is a self-proclaimed Christian nation. Thus, the metaphor of the Savior’s return is complex and appropriate for the type of satire that Ngema, Mtwa, and Barney Simon created for the stage.
Fantasizing a biblical prophecy in South Africa is ironic because all Morena’s miracles relate to the mundane yet politicized struggles of South Africans. The play challenges people’s definitions of fantasy by testing the apartheid government’s commitment to Christianity and their anticipation and treatment of a black Savior. In scene 18, when Morena is betrayed and caught, Morena, like Jesus at the crucifixion, prays, “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing,” but his follower insists, “They know! They know!,” a striking blow to the Christian morality that Afrikaners claim to have.
The play also questions to what extent freedom is a fantasy. The answer, for those who believe the promises of Christianity, is that freedom is not a fantasy because the Bible and the Savior have promised that it is possible for justice to reign on earth just as it does in heaven. In scene 22 the prisoners at Robben Island are perplexed with the fact that they, as prisoners, were given Bibles since the New Testament emphasizes freedom through a belief in the Savior.
The second coming of Christ, who is portrayed by the black Morena, internationalizes the apartheid struggle as a globally noteworthy situation and highlights another theme: Although the international media are readily willing to cover Jesus’s return, the same media do not mobilize to demonstrate apartheid’s atrocities to the world. This discrepancy indicts the international world for not helping South Africans gain freedom from apartheid. Numerous international newspapers and periodicals are mentioned for converging on Robben Island to get interviews with the soldiers guarding Morena. In addition, the mass media, including “pressmen, radiomen, South African television, [and] international television,” were waiting for Morena upon his arrival at the airport in Johannesburg in order to get a good story.
The final theme of the play is the pressing need for South African black leadership. At the time the play was written, most leaders were either imprisoned or deceased. The one free leader, Bishop Desmond Tutu, is mentioned as one of the first people with whom Morena meets upon his arrival. The playwrights also refer to Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment on Robben Island, although the text mentions him only as “the agitator imprisoned on the Island.” Ngema and Mtwa give scathing commentary on so-called black leaders who act as “puppets” for the apartheid regime. The fact that Morena, a black Jesus, performs nonsupernatural “miracles” for South Africans is perhaps the true irony of the play. It suggests that ordinary men could also do these “feats” and that apartheid is so oppressive that the attainment of basic human rights requires supernatural power. Morena’s resurrection of Luthuli, Sobukwe, Ngoyi, and Biko, among others, is a symbolic resurrection that becomes a call for new leaders to forge their way into the political struggle against apartheid in the tradition of these fallen heroes.