Strike up the banned

2014-06-29 15:00

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The National Arts Festival, born in 1974, turns 40 this year. It’s seen 20 years of apartheid and 20 years of freedom. Satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys has been there from the start. He looks back in anger and in joy

What have I done at the National Arts Festival? Performed one-man shows inspired by the politics of the day from 1976 to 2013; written and directed plays; sat through glorious theatre; slipped out of kak.

I had flu, bronchitis, near-death sweats in the old inn up the hill. Hangovers, runny tummies, good reviews, bad ­reviews, full houses, no audiences. I took out full-page ads in the festival newspaper Cue using the f-word, alerting those festinos to use condoms when effing (and all hell broke loose).

I’ve loved it and hated it. I’ve sworn never to come back and yet find myself at the same place the next year swearing the same. I miss it when I’m not there and I will defend the need for it for the rest of my life.

I expect it to improve with age and I demand that it never loses its spirit of individuality and care. I am an addict. Happily, there is no cure.

In the old days, Grahamstown was a three-day drive from Cape Town in a Volkswagen Beetle, following a battered old kombi filled with great actresses (who would never get paid because they never expected payment).

I was a banned playwright with three embargoed plays in the boot of the car. My works were obscene, blasphemous and “setting the racial groups in disharmony against each other”. That’s funny in apartheid South Africa.

Film mogul Dirk de Villiers lent me the kombi. He was a kind man who saw passion and supported madness. He disapproved of my politics, while I used his politiek as material.

Grahamstown, 1976, weeks after an eruption in Soweto that would set the scene for the rest of our lives, the Shakespeare Festival (as the festival was then known) hosted our presentation of a revue and a play.

Not about “to be, or not to be”. It was more a “much ado about nothing Shakespearean”. We stayed in an ice-cold residence, where one of our actresses got stuck in the toilet. We broke the door and got to the Rhodes Theatre in time for the premiere of Paradise is Closing Down.

Strike up the Banned was performed as a late-night revue to blue-rinsed matrons and speech teachers who had never heard that word in Afrikaans before. So they didn’t walk out when one of us whispered “fok”.

God’s Forgotten is a play about the end of white rule in spite of God being an Afrikaner, and they applauded warmly. The message to them seemed to be: Yes, God is forgotten.

During the 1980s, the war zone crept nearer to the footlights. Arrests took place. People were tense. The subject of entertainment darkened. The 1987 festival presented two projects that were conceived during our states of emergency: a new play and a burlesque of bad taste.

Panorama is set on Robben Island in that same year, centred on two white schoolteachers forced into a life-changing confrontation with the daughter of a black prisoner dying in the jail. A peep into the unknown, the unwanted, the forbidden. At the same time, Chris Galloway and I did Rearranging the Deckchairs on the SA Bothatanic, ending with the captain, looking like PW Botha, singing: “And now the end is near and I face the final curtain.”

The festival went on through trauma, through storm, through lies and deceits, promises of funding to no funding to moments where we on the Fringe actually helped fund the Main! I realise today that the festival was the umbilical cord that joined us to that ultimate desire: to perform. To be original. To be brave. To be mad doing three shows a day.

There is a TV series on now called Under the Dome, about an invisible bubble that encases a community that lives without knowing what can happen next.

The Grahamstown festivals had a feeling of that panic. During the years of apartheid – that now echoes in stand-up jokes about racist whites and wretched arias about poor blacks – it was business as usual. We knew our decent Christian way of life was based on a lie. Those 10 days every year gave us that chink in the armour through which to shine the light of hope.

Since the late 1970s, everything had become controlled. ­Television was fabricated. News was propaganda. The “free” press was fumigated. Censorship made heroes of some ­warriors, while self-censorship made victims of worriers. And yet there was one place where we could whip it out, slap it on the wooden table and say: come or be damned!

In 1985, the festival world-premiered our film Skating on Thin Uys. It was Evita’s saga in her homeland of Bapetikosweti, where oil is discovered and the Pretoria regime wants the land back.

Evita Bezuidenhout, the star of the film Skating on Thin Uys, signs autographs at the world premiere of the film at the Grahamstown festival in 1985

The president of her homeland, her former garden boy, called Pompies, agrees. But only if Evita’s blonde daughter Billie-Jeanne marries his son Leroy.

Black on white! 1985? Happy ending? Yes, in Grahamstown’s main road in a vintage car in the freezing cold, Evita on the back seat with the hood down, looking like a frozen Venus de Milo with arms, in her orange, white and blue outfit, smiling at the crowds of white ancients waving, young rawbones frowning and black locals screaming with laughter. “Hau, here was a very mad white madam!”

The car stopped at the City Hall and the mayor of the ­moment waited for her. Did he know what he was in for? Evita gave him a Jayne Mansfield kiss. Back then it was illegal for men to wear women’s clothes, but we got away with it during a festival in Grahamstown and probably gave an NP mayor a heart attack in the process!

Beyond the Rubicon lampooned President Botha’s cop-out in 1986. But 1990 changed the rules of the open road of survival. Nelson Mandela was free to lead and we took deep breaths of the oxygen of free speech.

I rewrote Paradise is Closing Down and presented it at the 1992 festival with men playing the gay characters. No longer set on the eve of the earthquake of 1976, the play now teetered on the edge of the cliff of democracy with civil war and chaos poised to jump.

While it was legal to be gay and show it, tins of tuna were being collected and stored. In 1993, Just Like Home celebrated the fact that there were no ex-South Africans overseas, just a South African somewhere else, and pushed the talent of Shaleen Surtie­Richards into a limelight that has never dimmed.

Evita and her sister Bambi Kellermann arrived in 1993 with The Poggenpoel Sisters, where the blonde sang Brecht and Weill, and then got pissed enough for Big Sis to rescue. Two legends in one lunch venue. Then 1995 saw the revue You ANC Nothing Yet (a title ahead of its time) as the early show followed by Bambi singing the FAK Songs.

Terry Herbst was the Port Elizabeth Herald critic who every year kept a beady eye on my work at the festival. He gave me my first professional theatre review when I was still a ­student at the University of Cape Town drama department in the 1960s, and then later at the Space Theatre in the 1970s. He was never impressed by mere talent. He demanded ­structure and discipline. He helped me find both.

Truth Omissions harvested the confusions around that Truth and Reconciliation daybreak with Desmond Tutu’s tears ­embalming the horror. And now looking back, how flawed it all was and how many of us who needed support then are still waiting for it now.

And yet support somehow is always there somewhere in that dark space, when the house lights go out and the stage spots illuminate people in strange poses and costumes, using words that elevate us all above the ­ordinary, to hold a cracked mirror to look into where we ­recognise ourselves as the heroes, the villains, or just the ­ordinary people who make up an audience without which none of this magic could happen.

Pieter-Dirk Uys (centre) surrounded by many of the characters he has created over the years. Picture: Stefan Hurters

With 1999 came the end of a century, and Godfrey Johnson and I brought Noel and Marlene to a young audience who had never heard of either of them. It was also the festival where I produced that gangbang of shows, as if I was structuring my own obituary.

On the stage of the great Groot Gat, now respectfully known at the Guy Butler Theatre, I presented, in addition to the Coward/Dietrich fest, Dekaffirnated; Going Down Gorgeous, the soap opera starring uberkugel Nowell Fine; Tannie Evita Praat Kaktus, her revisionist history of the homeland reinvented with every headline of the moment; and then ending with Ouma Ossewania Praat Vuil. And what a joy that was to vomit out the very words that once kept my publicity department, the Publications Control Board, busy. It was now viva free speech! Viva kak and poep!

My play Auditioning Angels came in 2003. A story about loss and discovery, where death through a virus resulted in unwanted orphans and how every character leaves the stage with an adopted baby in their arms.

Directed by the late Blaise Koch, he gave it a special resonance as he was dying of that very monster that was the driving force in the play. I followed that up with Foreign Aids, which would then be exported to Boston, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, Beijing and Pretoria.

The cherry on my festive koek was in 2012 when artistic director Ismail Mohammed said: “Give me something mad and different.”

I put my finger down my creative throat and came up with An Audience with Pieter-Dirk Eish!, a pick-a-box show where the audience chooses a numbered box out of which comes a story and so a new show every night. I did it as a one-off mad moment. It is now a powerful tool in my kit and I open it in London at the Soho Theatre on July 13.

Which brings me to the punch line of this meander through memory. Today, the National Arts Festival is a reminder that madness still works. When a group of people get together and say: “Enough complaining! Let’s just do it, damn it!” We did it then; we are doing it now. It was first in the quicksand of police harassment, racist laws and fear. Today it is in the ­stagnant pond of debt and subsidy, failure and fear.

The festival proves that being called mad is good. The ­theatrical road ahead is not only potholed, often it doesn’t even exist. Plan for that and create the road.

Travel that road. It leads north from the Nelson Mandela metropole to a small university town named after some historical troublemaker not many people seem to like. For 10 days every year, you may just find that the answer to your question will be yes.

Find details of Uys’ upcoming shows at pdu.co.za

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