Theatre – Pieter-Dirk Uys: Long tiptoe to freedom

2014-09-28 15:00

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I have an official typed letter in German framed above my desk. I see it every day. I read it. It was written on August 19 1935 from the office of the president of the Reichsmusikkammer.

It was addressed to Helga Bassel, a young pianist living in Berlin. It stated blandly that because she was a Jew, she would no longer be allowed to perform in public.

She ignored the warning and kept performing. In 1937, she was forced into exile. She went to Cape Town. Helga Bassel was my mother.

How easily a written paragraph can end a life, destroy a dream or paralyse through fear. In the 1970s, I also received letters from a nationalist government. The Publications Control Board banned three of my plays in quick succession, making me the most banned playwright in South Africa for those few months.

I quote from some of the official correspondence, giving their reasons for preventing me from performing my work in a public place. My plays were:

» “Likely to pain and offend many persons, but particularly those members of the population of the Republic of South Africa, whose constant endeavour it is to uphold a Christian way of life.”

»?“Deemed to bring a section of the inhabitants of the Republic into ridicule or contempt.”

»?“Deemed to be harmful to the relations between the black and white inhabitants of the Republic.”

These letters are not framed above my desk. They are now part of an exhibition celebrating our history through the prism of humour in our Museum/Nauseum at Evita se Perron in Darling. It shows that sometimes when history repeats itself, it can take tragedy and turn it into farce.

In 1981, I’m 36 years old. Prime Minister PW Botha announced a democratic general election for whites only. Where’s the fun in that? So I planned to stand as an independent candidate in the Johannesburg constituency of Westdene against the incumbent MP, the minister of foreign affairs, Pik Botha.

“But what would happen to Pik Botha if you won?” someone asked.

That made up my mind. Go back to the theatre. Do a one-man show. You’ve got enough material here to fill a lifetime of 60 minutes. But what to call the show? It came loud and clear from the mouth of the leader, die Baas, der Fuehrer, white South Africa’s Number One. PW Botha wagged his finger, licked his lips and said: “Adapt or die.” Some of his frightened white supporters adapted. Many of the angry black suppressed died. I had just said: “Dankie Oom. Thanks for the title.”

There I was in 1981, after a general election for whites only, with more material than I could ever use, plus a title from the mouth of PW Botha. Time to open Adapt or Dye. The only ­theatre that dared to allow something like that at the time was The Market. We opened there as a late-night show starting at 11pm, hoping that the security police were either drunk or in bed with the maids.

Today people ask: “How did you survive all that?” Easy. I’m white. White survived. Black died. So one had to use one’s whiteness to reflect the madness. There was only one way to adapt and not die. Put all the props, wigs, shoes, costumes in the cardboard boxes outside the stage door in the alley. Stay on stage. If you leave to change, they might be waiting behind the curtains. Don’t have blackouts after a sketch, as a blackout could give them a chance to invade your space and black you out. Even having an interval means they can go to their cars and load their guns. At least you’re safe on stage in the lights and in front of witnesses.

Thirty-three years later, I am back on that same stage at The Market theatre with a show called Adapt or Fly. Still with cardboard boxes; still part of a chorus line of recognisable characters, with history repeating ­itself and turning it into farce. Familiar finger wags from a PW Botha, winks from a Pik Botha, howzits from a NowellFine and vivas from Tannie Evita, who all started their stage life with me back in 1981. And yet in 2014 they reflect the uncomfortable familiarities. No, history doesn’t ­repeat itself in South Africa. It just rhymes: “From apartheid to tripartite, from amandla to Nkandla.”

Adapt or Dye meant life or death. It was a black and white Broederbond Bondel. Adapt or Fly is a rainbow review with a satirical cluster. It doesn’t suggest: become as corrupt, or get out. It echoes the freedom to laugh at fear and make it less fearful. Be in charge. Be a democrat. Be an optimist who expects the worst, hoping that the worst will never be as bad as you imagined. So let us toast this remarkable country with a glass that is always half-full and never half-empty. It’s still a careful tiptoe through a minefield, this 30-year trek from Adapt or Dye to Adapt or Fly!

»?Catch Pieter-Dirk Uys in Adapt or Fly at The Market theatre on October?1. Book through

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