Woza Albert! : As an Intercultural Play of Liberation

In the context of an intercultural/interracial society of the 1980’s, the tradition of drama in South Africa takes a turn of protest especially with the advent of staging Woza Albert! in The Market Theatre, Johannesburg. The theatre operated with no racial restrictions. The play was written and performed by the artists Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon. South Africa suffered a brutal and demonic kind of violence and discrimination that was physically, mentally and psychologically abusive. South African Dramas are staged for a highly strong reason than to achieve aesthetic appeal from the audience. Woza Albert! was written in a period of political unrest under the historical background of apartheid. The play seeks to challenge the ideology of the apartheid regime. It in fact satirises the sociopolitical condition of South Africa which had taken its people far away from human dignity and freedom. Woza Albert! is a play that reveals the irony of imagining the second coming of Christ in South Africa.

To ‘Rise up’ (Woza) or to ‘wake up’ was African drama’s major aim. The title of the play Woza Albert! Woza meaning to “rise up” was the slogan that was chanted by almost everybody who was a victim of apartheid. Apartheid meaning “Separateness” or “Separate Development” slowly through the history from the year 1948 to 1994 has evolved into a term that directly linked to “racism” in South Africa.  Derrida in his lecture on apartheid titled Racism’s Last Word termed it as, “ A spurious autonomy and agency: “ The word concentrates separation by isolating being apart in some sort of essence or hypostasis, the word corrupts it into a quasi – ontological segregation””(Derrida 140 – 141). Derrida also calls apartheid as “unique appellation”. He claims that South African racism is the only one on the scene that dares to say its name and present itself for what it is. The play was written in a time where apartheid movement was being dismantled and moved away from discrimination and elimination of colour which also lead to disbelief in religion. In scene five, Percy takes on an “evangelical” tone in a way of mocking the English Priests who had spread Christianity in South Africa. The omnipresence of God, the concept of heaven and hell are questioned. The west disoriented the Christ figure into a Eurocentric sphere in which the rest of the world was away from its centre. Further, any production of contemporary South African Drama would have had an essence of the west because; its society was the product of a civilizational mission that the Europeans took up to erase the ‘savage’ history.

Woza Albert! can be called as an intercultural play because it adopts the Eurocentric and pre-colonial techniques of theatre. Borrowing the ideas of the pre – colonial theatre would help them go back to their indigenous roots, while at the same time they cannot forgo the European influences as well. The language used by the blacks was very limited because it was a “borrowed tongue”. It further showed their crippled position in not being able to express what they felt. But since the play was written in English, for the white audience, the play can be considered as an initiation of ‘writing back’ to the Empire. Also, using English to perform the play becomes problematic because, English was understood only by a minority of African people. This in a way again subverts the language as well as the position of Black people under the shadow of white power.  

The setting of Woza Albert! resembles Beckettian style where only two people act with minimum props and stage lighting. In the stage direction, by acknowledging and transforming into the audience themselves, the authors have used the Meta dramatic technique of breaking the fourth wall. The dialogues are sometimes directed to the audience, interrupting the narrative, to create what Brecht called the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ (Alienation Effect). For example in scene one, Percy begins the play addressing the audience, “Hey! Beautiful audience, hey? Beautiful musician, ne? Okay, now let us see how beautiful his passbook is!”(Percy et al 4) Arrigo Subiotto says in “Epic Theatre: A Theatre for the scientific age” that, “This effect can be identified in the play’s structure, the disposition and contrasting of scenes and episodes; in the language, the conflict of dialogue and the contradictions highlighted between the speech and actions of the characters; in the actors effort to play at being and to stand outside a character; and in the handling of the ‘sister’ arts such as music, lighting and scenic design in a stage production” (Bartram, 36) The stage directions also reveals role plays by the characters, stage setting, humour and lot of physical interactions and dialogue with the audience.

The image of ‘siren’ runs throughout the play. It is used as a device that could transform a situation from normalcy to a state of emergency. The play uses large number of physical gestures, words and minimal props. It shows that such a play could be performed not specifically in a stage set up but it could literally be performed in any blank space. This type of technique was used by Jerzy Grotowski, a practitioner of “Poor Theatre”. His theory mainly focuses on actor training and excludes most excesses on theatre. Physical movement was a key component of “Poor Theatre”. Since Woza Albert! is a play that serves a larger purpose beyond the dramatics of a play, it can also be called as “paratheatre”, “para” meaning “beyond”. The play’s use of “invisibility” can be related to Augusto Boal’s concept of “Invisible Theatre”. The purpose of “Invisible Theatre” was to show everyday oppression without the spect – actors knowing it. For instance, the person who interviews the common people of South Africa is invisible and the people play along with the characters as if they truly existed. It also happens in the case of Morena. Morena is an invisible character and the play circles around with a belief that this character existed. Morena (Christ), an omnipresent figure is identified in different persons in the play. Since Morena is seen as a South African, who the people are expecting to be saved by him (like the other political leaders did like Biko, Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, Liliyan Ngoyi, Bram Fischer and many others). Morena too is put in prison and was killed by cruel plot of flight bombing.

Woza Albert! combines the characteristics of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Augusto Boal was influenced by Paulo Freire’s ideas that form the crux of his theatrical techniques. Boal’s theatre is made for people who want to fight back against the oppression of everyday life. In Theatre of the Oppressed the audience become active, such that as “spect – actors”. They explore, analyze and transform the reality in which they are living. Percy in the play appears and reappears into different characters. He transforms himself into a White man wearing a pink nose and he addresses the audience.

The authors/actors bring in various issues faced by the Black Africans because of their colour. Black South African’s identity and their movement around their own homeland were controlled for the benefit of the white minority Afrikaans. Scene one in Woza Albert! satirises the brutal behavior of the Afrikaans who deprived the black people from their access to everyday life. Passbooks became the most detested symbol in South Africa. It was dehumanisation of the blacks that took place under the apartheid South Africa. It made their land a prison state. The land and people were thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression and violence of the oppressors. It was not just the state which was turned into a prison but also the structure within the actual prison was a sight of humiliation. Barbara Harlow in her book, Resistance Literature explains that in a Third World political prison state the practice of writing would be counter – hegemonic which “organises and documents the political resistance to a bureaucratisation and mechanisation of the human and social mind and body which takes place inside the prison institution.”(Harlow 124)

The actors rush in and out of many characters that explicitly satirise the ‘rich’ white attitude towards the ‘poor’ black people. For example in scene fifteen, Patrick Alexander Smith is mistaken to be Morena, where he gets down from a jumbo jet and mockingly questioned by the interviewer about the flight being faster than the donkey. The interviews with the common people of South Africa, mocks the television, media, journalism and popular culture of the West which was new to the so called ‘tribal culture’ of Africa. The mistaken identity of Morena is also not taken seriously. People are at a point where they are normalised to accept the “passbook” culture to get “qualified” to work in their own land. Percy tries to shout out the atrocities they face in Albert Street, Johannesburg, but he is also excited about getting a six month work permit. The black South Africans could not take in more of ‘naked terrorism’, that the religion they hold on to became a mockery.

South Africa is a class divided society. Karl Marx sees religion as a feature of a class divided society. A classless society will not need a religion. Religion as an ideology works well in a colonial framework. In South Africa, the Afrikaans, the ruling class society used this ideological weapon to justify the suffering of the poor as something inevitable and god – given. The scenes in Woza Albert! about the “Brick Coronation”, (which could be a parody of the ‘Garden of Gethsemane’) after the Zulu- boy’s racist boss is ridiculed as a product of government news – speak, the two actors, a token of white paternalistic concern for the natives of the land, put up a tableaux of raising all the dead black liberals of the country. Many issues such as anger, resistance, labour, and doubts in the belief system are stated during the course of action.

Raising the dead liberals alive becomes a cathartic action as the people of South Africa know ‘exactly who they want’ to save the country from the clutches of the whites. Christianity believes that Christ was brought back to life after three days to save humanity. In the play, at a point, the concept of religion is almost dismissed. Decolonization was the first and foremost priority. Breaking the taboos in this regard was increasingly a result of liberation, which analyses the concept of solidarity in the past and marks the end of many ‘heroic narratives’. Woza Albert! is in many ways hybridized, in the sense that the play exposes a collective vendetta against the white oppressive government.

There is a strong resemblance of the Prospero/Caliban syndrome in Woza Albert!. To communicate in the language of the oppressor and to show what they had done as settlers is an expression of themselves and their freedom.  The white audience felt exactly what Prospero experienced when he heard Caliban curse him in English.

Caliban:  You taught me language; and my Profit on it is, I know how to curse.

The red plague rid you for learning me learning me your language! (529)

Similarly the South Africans used English to vent out their anger and to resist the whites from dominance. The play stands out as a Pedagogy for the Oppressed as a humanist and libertarian pedagogy. It achieves it in two distinct stages. At first, it unveils the world of oppression through the “praxis” commit themselves to transformation. Secondly, the play shows the reality of the oppression of the blacks and that it ceases to belong to the oppressed that the play becomes a beginning of a process of permanent liberation.


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Cash, Justin. Poor Theatre Conventions. March 12, 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
Chapman, Michael. South African Literatures. London and New York: Longman, 1996. Print.
Egar, Emmanuel. “The Foreign Language Burden” The Crisis of Negritude: A Study of the Black Movement against Intellectual Oppression in the Early 20th Century. Web. 10 Oct 2014.
Fanon, Frantz. “Negro and Language.” Black Skin White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1986, Print.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 2005. Web. 19 Sep 2014.
Harlow, Barbara. “Prison Memoirs of Political Detainees” Resistance Literature. New York And London: Methuen, 1987. Print.
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Ed. Graham Bartram and Anthony Waine. London: Longman, 1982, Print. 

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