Saturday, July 29, 2006

Calling a spade a spade.

I well remember the first time I saw Pieter-Dirk Uys in performance. In fact he wasn’t in performance just giving a speech. But I roared with laughter and for the life of me I don’t know why. Half the time the punch line was in Afrikaans and I couldn’t understand what he said. But whatever it was he said it funnier than anyone else I could think of.

Uys is a rare performer who used biting humour to ridicule the authoritarian apartheid regime of South Africa. And the first time I heard him he was speaking to an anticensorship conferences immediately after the African National Congress took over the country. He made a telling closing remark: “I will see you all in ten years at the next anticensorship conference.” How right he was.

But it feels wrong to refer to Pieter as he since he is best known when he goes in drag as Evita Bezuidenhout. He single handedly created, quite literally, the best known white woman in South Africa. For instance Evita became the ambassador from South Africa to the black homeland of the Republic of Bapetikosweti. The border of this fictional homeland mimicked the borders South Africa set up and then some. In Evita’s case the border ran through the middle of her dining room table. Of course it didn’t exist and neither did Evita but it was easy to forget that as one rolled in laughter. While the ANC was lobbying bombs at evil Pieter-Dirk was assaulting them with some far more deadly, satire. And the National Party hated every minute of it.

But Pieter-Dirk was no unthinking Leftist. He is committed to human freedom across the board. And often used his alter ego to voice statements the very opposite of what he himself believed. I remember one particularly funny incident when Pieter-Dirk in full drag as Evita appeared as a member of a panel. Evita was seated next to a fundamentalist minister with the anti liberal African Christian Democratic Party. Like most fundamentalists the ACDP was quite openly hateful toward homosexuals.

The subject of gay rights came up and Evita commented about how as an Afrikaans woman she could not endorse this immoral behaviour of men dressing up as women. Of course the audience was in stitches because it was well know to everyone, well most everyone, that Evita ws precisely a man dressed up as a woman. But the icing on the humour came when the host next turned to the ACDP minister who apparently was the one person in South Africa who didn’t know that Evita was really Pieter-Dirk Uys. In all sincerity the good reverend said: “I agree with the lady next to me.” It was a moment to live in television history --- at least for me. I was in hysterics watching this. Alexander Games, theatre critic for the Evening Standard in London wrote: “Uys has never shied away from putting on a dress to make a point.”

And apparently Games had the same experience I did. He watched a performance of Uys in London, no doubt packed with South African expats, and reported: “It's slightly disorientating, but rather exciting to sit in a theatre and hear unfamiliar cultural references whizzing over one's head straight to their target. I couldn't, for example, say what was funny about "toyi-toying with sacred cows", though it provoked a roar of laughter from more informed audience members.”

Uys has never been politically correct. And when the new South Africa emerged and brought with it the tyranny of political correctness he responded. The “N” word is not used in South Africa but the “K” word (kaffir) is. Uys entitled his show on the New South Africa “Dekaffirnated: Calling a Spade a Spade.” And only he could get away with it and get applauded. No one escaped Pieter's sharp eye and Evita's sharper tongue. One character he played was a "kugel", the South African equivalent of a "Jewish American Princess". This woman is one of those faux liberals that one finds all to often -- liberal but only on the surface. Uys has her say, as part of his show: "There are just two things wrong with South Africa. One is apartheid and the other is blacks." After Thebo Mbeki was elected Evita told the world: "I did all the catering for his inauguration. Well, I had to, there was no one left in the kitchen -- they were all in parliament."

Evita has been embraced by Mandela and kissed by Bishop Tutu. In one show she said Nelson Mandela didn’t mind imprisonment so much. “He’s very grateful we kept him from Winnie all those years.” And Evita likes to tell of the young black man who told her: “We fought for freedom and all we got was democracy!”

Very true. And often the point of Evita’s biting wit is about freedom not democracy. And so few people today understand the difference. Pieter does and he explains the difference using humour. But yet he manages to remain a gentleman (and a real lady) while doing so.

If you are ever down in the Cape Town vacinity head out to the little town of Darling and pay Evita a visit at her dinner theatre.