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Thirty years after first appearing on stage in Adapt or Die, Pieter-Dirk Uys remains relevant,– and not just on the stage. TRACEY SAUNDERS spoke to him about his life’s work, the state of theatre and the fragility of democracy.
THERE can’t be many artists who receive email correspondence from principals in the Karoo with the postscript “Please don’t forget your penis”. Yet such is the popularity of Uys’s show about HIV/Aids that he receives regular requests to return from schools where he has previously performed.
Since 2000 he has travelled around SA, presenting For Facts Sake!, a free Aids-awareness production. He wishes that it was no longer necessary – and he is sad that it is more necessary than ever.
Recent statistics from the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in SA (Caprisa) indicate an increase in HIV-prevalence among 15- to 29-year-old women.
For Uys, “Youth Day is about realising that a 12-year-old boy is not a boy and that a six-year-old girl can be raped and she needs to know where she can go with her fear”.
When he visits schools, Uys stresses the right of children to say “no” and encourages them not to keep secrets. For many girls, it is the first time that they are given explicit permission to stand up for their rights.
After the years of Mbeki’s denialism, there is still a subtle attitude from the government which is as dangerous, says Uys. During a recent engagement at a high school in Soweto, he was approached by pupils after the show who, while appreciative of his humour, explained that his content was not required.
They went on to tell him they were aware of condoms, but they weren’t necessary as they all showered after sex. Unimpressed by Uys’s response of laughter, they earnestly explained that Jacob Zuma is the president, has several wives and has tested negative. Why shouldn’t they follow his example?
It is this disinformation that Uys tries to combat.
Another issue Uys tackles is what he calls the increasing homophobia in South Africa.
He says the recent brutal murder of a young gay man, Thapelo Makutle, in Kuruman is an indication of the fragility of our democracy and the lack of immediate outrage in the mainstream media was disturbing. “The shop window of our democracy is impeccable, it’s Chanel. The back is chaos, a graveyard,” says Uys.
The situation highlights the need to “fight for freedom every day”. He feels that our democratic rights should not be taken for granted – these rights are something we must fight for everyday.
Uys loves being 66. “The audition is over. I no longer have the disease to please.
“I don’t have to prove, just improve and if nobody else notices, I will.” It is in this vein Uys has created his next show, The Merry Wives of Zuma.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, the play is set in a town called Zuma (previously named Verwoerdville), home to Mrs Patel and Mrs Rabinowitz. It will be performed at the Market Theatre in November just before the ANC elective conference in Mangaung.
The cast is drawn from young graduates of the Drama for Life programme at the Dramatic Arts department of the Wits School of Arts, of which Uys is a patron.
He is excited about theatre in SA and the “hugely exciting tsunami of exposure on its way”.
He is impressed by young playwrights and directors, including Tsepo wa Mamatu, whose recent play, Mbeki and Other Nightmares, dealt with many of the issues close to Uys’s heart.
Uys refers to satire as “the cracked mirror with the ability to reflect things that aren’t spoken about”, although he feels he takes too many prisoners for his work to be regarded as pure satire.
Uys refers to Lenny Bruce, an American comedian, social critic and satirist who defined satire as “tragedy plus time”.
“During apartheid there was no time. A death in the morning had to be mentioned in the afternoon and then again in the evening,” says Uys.
He feels that the addition of the luxury of time will give a new perspective to plays such as Just Like Home, Selle ou Storie and Paradise is Closing Down.
Uys says that in 2011, three of the top plays being performed in SA were Somewhere on the Border (written by Anthony Akerman in 1985), Statements After an Arrest (Athol Fugard, 1972) and Woza Albert (Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon, 1981).
This is an indication of the longevity of the productions and their continued relevance to a new, younger audience whose parents lived through apartheid and who seldom speak of the brutality and inhumanity of their experiences, he says.
The genesis of Adapt or Fly was performed at the Apartheid Archive Project Conference, held at Wits.
After the show, young black audience members asked Uys for a repeat, because it gave them an insight in to the lives of their parents.
Uys maintains his balance of “49 percent anger, 51 perent entertainment” and says: “In exchange for your time I will give you something to remember.”
A promise he lives up to.
l Adapt or Fly is at the Baxter Monday to Saturday until Saturday. Tickets are R140. Computicket at 0861 915 8000.