Down memory lane of Protest Theatre: Woza Albert

By Edward Tsumele

There is one thing about people of the Afrikaans culture that you cannot take away from them, and that is that they are a deeply religious people generally, and their beliefs are steeped in the Christian religion in the main. That perhaps explains why the Afrikaaner nationalists of the apartheid era exploited the volks’ affinity to religion and in a very twisted way, brainwashed many an ordinary Afrikaaner to believe that apartheid in a culturally diverse country such as South Africa, was justified in terms of Christianity. A lot of ordinary Afrikaaners of the time of course believed in that brainwashing, while of course many did not.

Now can you imagine the horror of horrors the apartheid fathers faced when a satirical play during that time of repression of especially black people’s liberties came onto the stages of the Market Theatre, using the character of Jesus as the hinge on which this satire was based. But that is exactly what happened when playwrights Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon, conceptualised and staged Woza Albert, to mainly poke fun and laugh at the stupidity of the idea of apartheid.

The play became a very sophisticated and highly lauded way of dealing with apartheid using humour, under the noses of the apartheid fathers. These three playwrights were indeed naught to the core. Woza Albert has gone on to perform on several stages of the world, and has been critically acclaimed where ever it performed.

The recent iteration of this production in 2012, was equally embraced by audiences so many years after the fall of apartheid, and that is what classics do, especially the ones in the genre of Protest Theatre, such as this one.

Hamilton Dhlamini (shirtless)  Mncedisi Baldwin Shabangu (with shirt on)

Brought back on the stages by The Market Theatre, by arrangement with DALRO (Pty) Limited, Woza Albert in 2012, which starred Mncedisi Baldwin Shabangu and Hamilton Ntokozo Dlamini, and was directed by Prince Lamla left audiences enthralled as it performed for a limited season from Tuesday 10 January to Sunday 5 February 2012.

Indeed Woza Albert! is one of the plays for which South African theatre is best known internationally. Its physical style of storytelling was to inspire and influence theatre companies around the world – and it is one of the best examples that define South African theatre in all its vibrancy, innovation and humanity.

This celebrated and much-loved South African classic asks what would happen if Jesus Christ (Morena) came back to South Africa during apartheid. This lively satire of the absurdities of apartheid provides a showcase for the talents of two dexterous actors, who play a range of ordinary characters on the street.

The first part of the play sets the scene, attacking the pass laws that prevented black South Africans from moving and working freely. Similarly, it sketches in a few short minutes the semi-slavery that was imposed on manual workers by bosses who could fire them if they got too independent. However, there is always a rich vein of humour even in the worst adversity. The use of clown’s noses to distinguish the elite Afrikaners – including the Prime Minister – from the apparently subservient blacks was one of the features to make this play famous.

The short, impressionistic sketches begin to move from background scenes of generally downtrodden life to interviews with individuals about the impending visit of Morena – who inaugurates his Second Coming by flying to South Africa courtesy of SAA.

The second half of the play becomes considerably darker and more resonant. Now Jesus is in the country and his life is replayed in the apartheid context. He is first welcomed then imprisoned. When he is taken to Robben Island, his escape is easy as he walks back across the bay to Cape Town. This retelling of a familiar story in a new context becomes devastating by the end, shedding light on both the Bible and apartheid South Africa.

That season of Woza Albert!featured the talented performers  Shabangu and Dlamini, well respected artists on both stage and TV.. The 2012 production was directed by then emerging talent, Lamla, whose production, Coal Yard, won the Zwakala Festival and had a highly successful run at the Market Theatre that same year.

The Market has had great success that year with the restaging of classics from the past menu of its Protest Theatre – and Woza Albert! come as one of the  installments. As with the  highly successful Siswe Bansi is Dead in the same year, this play has been interpreted by a new generation of theatre practitioners for a new  and growing audience. 

Production Credits for Woza Albert (2012)

Authors                                  : Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon

Director                                  : Prince Lamla

Lx Designer                          : Wesley France

Costume Designer               : Thando Lobese      

Stage Manager                    : Lebeisa Molapo


Mncedisi Baldwin Shabangu         

Hamilton Ntokozo Dhlamini

CITYLIFE/ ARTS Disclaimer: This article only refers to the 2012 production of Woza Albert and no current show is on at the moment, and we are only publishing this article in the context of  Heritage Month and the Protest Theatre legacy championed mainly by the Market Theatre during the dark years of the struggle for freedom.

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