Ngema and Mtwa use just two boxes as props and a few costumes in Woza Albert!
Ngema and Mtwa use just two boxes as props and a few costumes in Woza Albert!
Ngema and Mtwa use just two boxes as props and a few costumes in Woza Albert!
Ngema and Mtwa use just two boxes as props and a few costumes in Woza Albert!
It’s extremely moving to meet up with theatre luminaries Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa. After all, these are the legends who 40 years ago created one of the most superb theatre classics ever in the country. When "Woza Albert!" was first performed at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1981, it created waves among the theatre-going public.

We sit almost four decades later sharing bowls of fragrant curry at Theresa’s restaurant at The Baxter. The actors, now in their 60s, recall the heady but politically treacherous days of performing this anti-apartheid satire at the height of Nationalist Party rule.

While South Africa was a pariah state they performed the show thousands of times, they say, travelling the world with this hard-hitting show. In South Africa they were harassed by the security police, especially as they took it to all the major township venues and hundreds of schools where children hungrily devoured the message of a new Christ coming and the characters he meets in apartheid South Africa. (Today it is a school setwork and thousands of children have seen the play.)

In travelling to dozens of destinations overseas, it raised massive support for the Struggle against apartheid.

The actors skilfully use their voices and portray everyone from a little boy to an old woman to tell their story. Their synchronicity and artistry in mimicking sounds and using few words to get that powerful message across is remarkable as they raise a police siren, create a hair razor, use their hands to show a needle being threaded, a group of policemen raiding a home - creating a world of reality on stage - some moments more whimsical; some more brutal.

The men say the play remains faithful to its original script and as someone who grew up in that era, it’s easy to understand the names and the events that the men allude to.

“We are used to what we did and then in those days the audience understood easily what we were referring to,” says Ngema.

“The satire makes them laugh against the face of the harsh reality,” he adds.

Ngema continues that today there are some different reactions from differing audiences. “Some have to focus more to understand what we are referring to but it has an immediate message. The born-frees who see it, for example - we caught them outside after the play and they were weeping at what we were saying.”

"Woza Albert!," directed by Christopher John, is presented by the Baxter Theatre Centre and Committed Artists, in association with The Playhouse Company. It runs until March with an age restriction of 13 years. 

Booking at www.webtickets.co.za