Pieter-Dirk Uys takes on social issues in AMT

Pieter-Dirk Uys, South Africa’s most famous satirist, performed before student and faculty crowds on the MainStage at the Adams Memorial Theatre Wednesday and Thursday. The first performance was billed as Pieter-Dirk Uys in “Foreign Aids,” whereas the second night listed Mrs. Evita Bezuidenhout in “An Evening with an African Queen.”

Uys performed as himself on Wednesday night; however, for the second night, Uys came on stage as Mrs. Evita Bezuidenhout, his famous female, Afrikaaner alter-ego. Both performances showcased his formidable acting skills and his unique style of subversive humor. By frequently interacting with members of the audience, he also used his humor to educate the crowd about the culture, history and people of South Africa.

Uys was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1945. He descended from a Jewish mother and an Afrikaaner father, giving him white skin and thus a membership to the white ruling class that controlled the country.

As a young man, Uys became completely indoctrinated into the system known as apartheid, which the white minority used to legally establish their supremacy. He said he accepted the system because he knew no other life. Since South Africa did not have television until the mid-1970s, his childhood was truly isolated and thus he did not know that the rest of the world did not operate in such a racist way. It was many years before he recognized the cruel realities of his country.

Uys says his first awakening came when he was serving in the white South African army in the mid-1960s. In the army, he became aware for the first time of lower class whites. Since he came from a very privileged background, he had previously attended only excellent schools and had been only in the company of other well-educated whites. After meeting people of his race who were from a lower social class, he realized that the world was not simply broken up into the two categories of wealthy, well-educated whites and poor, subservient people of color.

When he returned to school, he eventually began to see the absurdity of racism. At his school, there were a small number of black students, one of whom performed with him in a play. Uys quickly realized that it was ridiculous that in the context of the play the black student could utter profanities at whites, but anywhere else he could be imprisoned for saying the same things. Uys said he began to recognize how illogical and unfair his country was.

He became so appalled by South Africa’s racism that he decided to fight against it through theater, which he realized was the perfect tool for him to use to attack apartheid. Through political satire and comedy, he could draw in white people that might not otherwise be sympathetic to his cause. Once these people got inside the theater, they often found that they could not help but laugh at the jokes in his plays. In this way, Uys began his long and successful career of subversive comedy and political theater.

The show on Wednesday night showcased Uys performing the roles of several characters and a number of impersonations while raising awareness of the AIDS crisis in South Africa. He related true stories about people in South Africa who are struggling with the disease.

Uys met with similar success on Thursday, performing as Mrs. Evita Bezuid-enhout. Although his performance consisted merely of him dressed as a woman and speaking with the audience for an hour and a half, it was extraordinarily entertaining, informative and humorous.

The success of Uys’ shows can be attributed to their improvisational and up-to-date qualities. Indeed, throughout “An Evening with an African Queen,” Uys made constant references to Williams College and Williamstown. For example, as soon as Evita appeared on stage, she began speaking about how she had just had dinner with “Morty and Mimi.” In addition, she brought a bag of gifts from Goff’s Sports onstage and used several items as props. Holding up a black and white cow-spotted football, she exclaimed, “This is truly a South African rugby ball.” Later she joked about Williams College wanting to erect a statue to Nelson Mandela by saying that “they’ve already got a few eyes lying around.”

Another reason Uys’ performance was so well received is that as an onstage personality, he interacts charismatically with members of the audience. He created a relaxed, personal atmosphere in which each audience member became a part of a conversation with Evita. Early on in her performance, Evita singled out a member of the audience and asked him where he was from. He responded by saying that he was from Texas. Then she asked, “Is that why you wear your hat indoors?”

Later, when talking to a spiked-hair member of the audience from Washington, D.C., she exclaimed, “Every time you look at the White House your hair should stand up!” All of these interactions with the audience elicited great laughter.

The main purpose of Uys’ highly improvisational dialogue and audience interactions seemed to be to engage the audience so they could more easily relate to the subject matter. Given that much of the audience was probably not well-versed in the history of South Africa, the references to Williams College and the jokes directed at members of the crowd served to draw the audience in so they could feel like they were a part of the performance. Once they were engaged with the show, they could more easily follow Evita’s commentary on the politics of her country.

Nevertheless, the most memorable parts of the show were often found in Evita’s one-line zingers mocking her own country. When speaking about her African grandchildren, she said that in South Africa, children are not black “until they start stealing.” Later, when speaking about South African emigration to America, she quipped that as a result “both our IQs went up.”

During his performances, Uys presented a hilarious caricature of a white Afrikaaner woman while simultaneously speaking about contemporary world politics and South African history and culture. Uys’ interactions with the audience were abundantly engaging and humorous. His show was a tremendous success and he fully demonstrated why he is well known worldwide for his biting political satire and superb acting abilities.