Pieter-Dirk Uys unveils ’Elections and Erections’ at ART
For Pieter-Dirk Uys, the stage is a bully pulpit and his chosen "weapon of mass distraction," as he puts it, is humor.
He wields this "weapon" to help audiences to "confront fear and make it less fearful." You can catch his political cabaret in his one-man show, "Elections & Erections," at the American Repertory Theatre's Zero Arrow Theatre in Cambridge, from April 3-May 4.
Political activist, satirist, playwright and agent provocateur, he's a man (and, metamorphosed on stage, a woman) of many hats (and wigs). He promises to teach us about humanity, and inhumanity, and to use often-scathing humor to confront and to heal even the deepest scars left in the wake of racism and homophobia.
Uys first appeared at ART three years ago during Zero Arrow's inaugural. At that show, he introduced Boston-area audiences to his alter ego, the grande dame herself, Evita Bezuidenhout, she of big hair and much makeup.
He refers to her as "the ambassadress to the fantasy nation of Bapetikoweti." But make no mistake, this is no late-night-on-Commercial Street-drag show: Evita wears many pearls and dispenses them as wisdom to be shared by all.
I interviewed Uys last month via e-mail. It was the only way to contact him. He's a man in constant motion. He answered my questions from at his home in Darling, South Africa. A few days later, he packed his carpetbag, bound for performance gigs in France, and then the U.K.
He wrote to tell me that he was expected to make a brief return to South Africa, only to then make ready for the trip to the U.S. Once on American soil, in addition to the ART booking, he has scheduled appearances in New York and California. He is indefatigable, as the tempo of his responses indicates:
Q: Many theatergoers first learned of the shame of apartheid in the 1980s through the work of South African playwright Athol Fugard. The plan 'A Lesson from Aloes,' introduced us to your troubled homeland. One of the characters in that play, Gladys Bezuidenhout, shares the same last name as your character, Evita. Is that mere coincidence? What influence did Fugard have over your work?
UYS: I started working at the non-racial Space Theatre in Cape Town in 1973, which was started by Athol and Brian Astbury. I had just written my first play in the U.K. Instinct led me away from becoming a clone of Fugard. He inspired me to create a different alphabet, using humor to reflect fear and shame.
The only reason Evita's surname is Bezuidenhout is because after her birth on stage in 1981 a journalist interviewing me asked what it was. I didn't have one, so I looked at a theatre poster on the wall. It said 'Aletta Bezuidenhout in The Seagull'-- hence the surname.
Q: In your published autobiographical notes, you wrote about your own experiences as a gay man. You wrote that you had to conduct your romance with a black man during the 1960s in secret, because the laws of apartheid prohibited such relationships. What's happening today in South Africa today with regards to gay relationships and the gay community? Is there more tolerance for gay people and interracial gay relationships in South Africa today?
UYS: We have a unique constitution that protects everyone equally. That's the good news. The bad news is too few people know where their protections are and so become marginalized by racism and conservative bullying. There is a huge difference in attitude today compared to the apartheid years when gay was illegal. But the urban legend that there are no black gay men and women is still prominent and absurdly dangerous, especially to those who are.
Q: Performing, writing, political activism, running your own theatre, teaching young people, traveling around the world - you are a man constantly on the go. Are you heartened by the responses of your audiences? What keeps you going?
UYS: Having performed before 1.4 million young people in the schools with my AIDS-awareness play, 'For Facts Sake,' I am so inspired by their demand for life, their energy and their sharp focus on the future. I treat them all like adults even though some are aged 12. My source? Hell, I've been unemployed since 1973 when the censors banned by work, and so I had to become my work. Now I'm in charge of everything in my life.
If I do something, everything can happen. If I do nothing, nothing takes place. A German mother gave me organization. I was trained as a stage manager at drama school and that gave me discipline. And being an anarchist means I am obsessed with structure in order to present sexual, social, political and theatrical anarchy through humor.
Check out Pieter-Dirk Uys' "Elections and Erections" 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 3 until Sunday, May 4. American Repertory Theatre's Club at Zero Arrow Theatre, intersection of Arrow Street and Mass. Avenue in Cambridge. $15-$52. 617-547-8300 or www.amrep.org.