Life, etc

Pieter-Dirk Uys and Mzilikazi Khumalo – and the many uses of history

By J Brooks Spector 30 March 2015

The performing arts scene in Johannesburg is getting increasingly busy with large-scale oratorios as well as much comedy on various stages. J. BROOKS SPECTOR listens to and contemplates the oratorio, ‘Ushaka’, as well as Pieter-Dirk Uys’ examinations of his own comedic gift and the questions they have in common.

The enormous publicity and media space given to the Rhodes statue dispute can obscure – or even overwhelm – the many guises of cultural life in South Africa and the way they support or are subversive to established ideas and interpretations of the country’s history. In recent days, for example, the writer listened to Mzilikazi Khumalo’s sweeping oratorio – Ushaka – dedicated to glorifying the memory of the early Zulu ruler, Shaka. A few days later, the writer also shared breakfast with Pieter-Dirk Uys, just as the comic was beginning the run of his newest show in Johannesburg at the theatre in Montecasino. Two very different projects, but both are attempting to come to grips with South Africa’s extraordinary history.

Ushaka was composed in those optimistic early days at the beginning of South Africa’s non-racial democratic order. Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo, composer of the opera, Princess Magogo, also produced the music for Ushaka to a libretto by Zulu language professor Themba Msimang, the man who had also crafted the words for Princess Magogo. The work has been arranged for choir, soloists and full orchestra twice, first by Chris James, and then substantially revised by Robert Maxym.

Following its first performances in South Africa, it has also travelled to the US to be performed at the famous Ravinia Festival in Chicago, and it has also had a multi-city tour through Europe. Sadly, because the work demands such large musical resources, complete performances in South Africa have remained few and far between since its composition. At its most recent performance, on Human Rights Day at the Joburg Theatre, it received a well-drilled, vigorous, enthusiastic and polished performance.

The performers included the magnificent Gauteng Choristers, accompanied by a full orchestra. Sidwell Mhlongo conducted the work, and it featured four well-matched soloists: Thembisile Twala; Sibongile Khumalo; Kananelo Sehau; and Emmanuel Maqoma. In addition, the work featured Mhloniswa Dlamini in the speaking role of the imbongi/poet. His words commented on the events of Shaka’s life, functioning something in the manner of the chorus in a Greek tragedy. While Sibongile Khumalo’s truly memorable voice is well known to audiences throughout this country and around the world, Thembisile Twala’s voice was undoubtedly something of a revelation to many. In her solos, her crisp, rich soprano voice filled the large hall without difficulty.

Traditionally at least, almost all oratorios draw on a religious text, rather than a secular one, usually tied to one of the gospels or a well-known narrative from the Old Testament such as the life of a prophet like Elijah. Khumalo’s music similarly has the kind of majestic quality that goes hand-in-hand with the retelling of a large-scale, majestic storyline. And, in the way the life of Shaka is framed by Msimang’s words, his life becomes a kind of faux-biblical-style, sweeping tale of betrayals, loves, expulsions and righteous victories, as well as a solemn, measured cadence when it comes to telling the events of his final days. Dlamini’s spoken words – beautifully projected and delivered theatrically – rather than shouted at top volume as is the case with too many praise singers in public events when they are lauding contemporary politicians – added a real sense of majesty to the work – and about Shaka’s life.

As for the music, for this listener at least, given its shape, it seemed to sound more like a grand cinematic score, rather than a secular religious offering, perhaps something like the orchestral suite a composer like Eric Korngold had fashioned out of his music for the film, Captain Blood. At other moments, though, Ushaka takes on an almost Verdi-like quality, much like the marches in one of his operas.

In a section that depicts one of Shaka’s smashing military victories over another clan, if trumpets have been given free rein, listeners might well have been forgiven if they had started to think of elephants on the loose from Aida’s triumphal march after Egypt’s victory over Ethiopia. Some of these effects stem from Khumalo’s effort to take an African musical sensibility and put it to work within a Western orchestral and vocal tradition.

Some years ago, in reviewing the Ravinia performance, the Chicago Tribune’s music critic had attempted to argue, “…the 90-minute account of 19th Century Zulu King Shaka’s life demonstrates the perils of searching for a viable hybrid between African and Western classical music: What you choose to sacrifice from your own traditions is even more critical than what you decide to incorporate from the new.” The reviewer, however, may well have missed a key element of Khumalo’s work in which he has been trying to craft a South African nationalist musical repertoire out of indigenous materials as well as Western musical techniques in much the same way Romantic era composers throughout Europe (and then in the 20th century in America) attempted to achieve. Such composers used the folk tunes and melodic textures of Scandinavia, Central Europe, and then further East, as nationalism became an increasingly potent political force translated into artistic and cultural modes of expression.

The real problems with this performance of Ushaka actually had very little to do with the performance. Rather it came from the ideological packaging that it came with on stage that night, courtesy of the government. While it is already a rather problematic exercise to situate the historical Shaka in a liberationist light – in close conjunction with Human Rights Day and its palimpsest of the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960; even before the music began, some local government department head insisted on delivering a speech extolling Shaka as a champion of freedom while simultaneously pushing the new buzz words: “social cohesion.” How Shaka’s historical life and its actual trajectory could be useful in promoting social cohesion was, and remains, something of a mystery, given the text’s extolling, at least in part, conquests by Shaka’s sweeping, unstoppable regiments.

But, why does a special event like this performance need a canned speech like this anyway? Shouldn’t the music simply be allowed to speak for itself, without a workbook to accompany it? Some years back at a performance of Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio, in a Robben Island prison exercise yard, in order to satisfy the mandarins at the SABC, the flow of the opera was interrupted by audio excerpts of Nelson Mandela’s “Speech from the Dock”, almost as if Beethoven’s obvious sympathies, the entire content of the opera, and its performance in an actual prison yard was still insufficient for an audience to appreciate the historical moment and meaning of the work. All of this, of course, simply points to the problematic nature of governmental efforts to harness artistic performances in the service of a governmental phrase of the week.

Also using history, Pieter-Dirk Uys is back in town at Montecasino, this time with a yet another show that interrogates the country’s history. In this case, however, rather than a planned narrative, it is a collection of over a dozen of his best-loved (or hated) characters, drawn from a lifetime of his delivering satirical takes on the foibles – or worse – of South Africa’s political carnival. (Uys insists that he is not a satirist, but merely an entertainer, but South Africa’s history is so replete with extraordinary devils that this difference can also seem like a distinction without a difference.)

What Uys has done for his newest show is a kind of high wire act. He has placed a series of twenty boxes on stage and in each box there are all of the props – perhaps a wig, a hat, a pair of glasses, a frock, a bit of a banner – that allows him define many of the characters who have peopled his theatrical universe over the years. And each box has a story within it. At each night’s show he will do six of the boxes but it is the audience who gets to choose which box he works from. Then it becomes Uys’ task to find a connection between each pair of preceding and succeeding characters in a way that doesn’t disrupt the pace or thrust of his night’s program. For the choices, he picks an individual audience member to pick each succeeding box’s number.

As a result of all this, each show is different, one night to the next, for Uys. The whole affair is a little bit like television comedy stalwart, Who’s Line Is It Anyway? But rather than just comedy, there is much history here as well as Uys remains passionate about the importance of drawing upon and using history, pairing this passion with the role of satire in South African theatrical work.

The two of us met in a sunny restaurant in Melville and Uys enters the restaurant bearing a magenta straw bag – in which there is a wig and some other props for one of his most beloved characters. From that, it is but a moment before we can speak about his nearly forty years in this business – from London to the Space Theatre, the Market Theatre and then on to a gloriously busy, well-filled “unemployment”, as he calls it.

We speak of where his material continues to come from and he explains that, just as the old government’s leaders effectively worked for him, the current parliament has been very good for him as well. Or, as he says, they have effectively been “stealing” his earlier material. He says he “depend[s] on politics” since “that is the perfume of my work”. Nevertheless, the politicians of today are making it harder for him in one way since he has become acutely aware of the possible pitfalls of taking the mickey out of politicians of a different colour, lest the comedy slide over into something more problematic. Instead, as his approach, he takes an issue and tries to work with the issue instead – playing the ball and not the man humourously, as it were.

In speaking of his audiences, he notes the generosity of his black audience members, recalling how it was for him when he imitated PW Botha manipulating a Thabo Mbeki puppet. Worried he might be deeply offending audiences (Pieter-Dirk Uys, offending audiences?), he recalls black theatregoers emphatically telling him, no, they weren’t offended at all. Or, as one said to him about that Mbeki puppet, “It’s just a doll!” Still, he comes to his shows with a 49% anger quotient and a 51% entertainment quotient, even if he insists it is just entertainment. The power on stage for a performer is enormous and one must be mindful of that power – and its uses and abuses – especially when one picks out a characteristic of someone in the audience.

Meanwhile, with a mind always in motion, he explains he is working on a new show, Nkandlakosweti, drawing on his most beloved and enduring character, Evita Bezuidenhout, and her political home base, and, of course, conjoined to the continuing disaster that is the president’s private residence. Still, despite his success with these efforts, Uys says he worries about the lack of historical background with so many of the people in his audiences these days. Old standbys like Piet Koornhof and Maggie Thatcher have faded away in his work, and even he has grown somewhat weary of eviscerating Grace Mugabe. To keep things fresh, he checks very carefully what political cartoonists like Zapiro are drawing in their work. Uys says that once someone like Zapiro has poked fun at something, that issue has entered the public discourse for a larger circle, and he can now draw upon it too for his own stage work.

Inevitably, given the tenor of the times, our conversation moves on to Cecil John Rhodes. Uys explains he has already issued an offer via Twitter to take the Rhodes statue from its current place of (dis)honour at the University of Cape Town and, instead, install it at Uys’ Boerassic Park museum in Darling, his home in the Western Cape, where the statue truly belongs. Or, perhaps, all those statues could be called an “Icons and Aikonas Park”. Still, Uys worries that all this energy on the Rhodes statue is really a diversion from the whole litany of much more important issues for South Africa these days.

Almost in spite of himself, Uys expresses admiration for the way Julius Malema and company have done their homework in overturning the political balance in parliamentary practice, as exemplified by the recent events in the National Assembly. And, he adds, the way the government party has handled all this shows just how fast asleep the ANC has been in its approach to governing the country for years. To Uys, this means he must now draw upon historical events to help people understand history so as to grasp the present – and the future. Along with everything else he is doing, he is working on yet other new shows, The Echo of the Noise and African Times also to mull all these historical questions. African Times will be at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, the thirty-seventh show he will have done at that festival since 1976. And he has a new volume of Afrikaans language plays he has written since 1975 as well that has just come out as well.

Finally, we converse about the history of his mother’s concert piano and what its history has meant for Pieter-Dirk Uys and his pianist sister Tessa Uys – and life more generally. His mother was a German Jew who relocated to Cape Town in 1938 with her piano, just ahead of the Holocaust, and the piano was returned to a Berlin museum just a few years ago. Uys says he continues to get emailed photographs every week from people who have seen the piano and taken a photograph of themselves together with the instrument – as they contemplate the disruptions of the 20th century that sent that piano back and forth between Africa and Germany.

History, and its interpretations, remains crucial to South Africa’s cultural life. Just as the roiling dispute about the Rhodes statue is not an argument over the aesthetics of a big lump of bronze, Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Ushaka and Pieter-Dirk Uys’ stage comedy have a historical core to them that gives them their energy, but also puts them in play for governments and people alike. DM

Pieter-Dirk Uys is on stage Tuesday through Sunday at Montecasino until 12 April in An Audience with Pieter-Dirk Uys.

Main Pic: The Gauteng Choristers (Picture Gauteng Choristers)

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