Woza Albert! 41st Anniversary Review

What if Christ’s second coming brought him to South Africa? That is the question asked in Woza Albert!, and as the characters in the play come to understand what the arrival of Christ (“Morena” in the play) means to them, so their emotional response is slowly teased out through a series of vignettes.

Mbongeni Ngema and Gabriella Pillhofer at the State Theatre

The first thing I have to say for this stellar performance is: WOW. The opportunity to see a performance of this play, which has had such a profound effect on me since I first encountered it, was truly amazing. And to witness the original cast and two of the three playwrights (along with Barney Simon), Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema, take to the stage was nothing short of incredible. Woza Albert! was truly an unforgettable experience.

I first encountered this play in a high school drama class and was deeply impacted by it. Previously, the only South African theatre I had encountered was from the post-Apartheid era, and so Woza Albert! opened my eyes to an entirely different type of theatre. Studying it, I was drawn in by the rawness of the stories, and the hopelessness of the characters. One scene that always stuck with me was that of Auntie Dudu searching in the bins for food. When she is asked what Morena’s arrival in South Africa means to her, she says she is happy because it means white people will have more parties and so she will find more food in the bins – maybe chicken legs or even a whole cabbage! We discussed what this meant for the state of the nation at the time – that things were so bad people didn’t even believe there was an end to Apartheid, no matter who came to save them. The situation was so dire that all they could hope for was tiny, incremental improvements in their lives, lives which had been so mangled by Apartheid that there seemed to be no light at all at the end of the tunnel. This play taught me about how hopeless black South Africans were during this time.

And so, though I spent many hours studying this play, actually seeing two people who had lived through these horrors telling the stories of people that felt real struck me in a way I was not expecting it to. There is just no way to put into words the passion that is evident in Mtwa and Ngema’s performances. Having performed the piece for 41 years, the two men have such an undeniable chemistry, as well as such talent as individuals, that it is impossible not to be enthralled for each and every of the 75 minutes that they are on stage. The Young Meat Seller, Auntie Dudu, Bobbejaan, Zulu Boy, and so many others are brought to life by these outstanding performers and have their stories told in such an honest way. The realness and drive they bring to all the roles is as enriching to the overall production as it is engrossing for the audience.

Furthermore, this is a high energy show, with only two actors to fill the time and space. This performance is nothing short of a physical feat; as Ngema puts it: “It’s like going to the gym every night!” Seeing two men in their 60s exert such immense energy to tell this story is inspiring! Soaking wet and sending beads of sweat flying into the first few rows, Ngema and Mtwa perform with all they’ve got until the very end, ensuring no emotion is left unexpressed, no story left unexperiened by the audience.

Ngema, Mtwa, and Simon wrote this piece to tell the story of a hopeless, desperate South Africa, yet still manage to maintain moments of lightness and laughter while not entirely making light of the situation. They are masters of their craft. Two men who, despite the time that has passed since its inception, remain engrained in this play and the stories it tells. This performance, directed masterfully by Christopher John, can be described as a perfectly choreographed dance, not a move out of place, and still as impactful now as I’m sure it was 41 years ago. Mtwa and Ngema make magic on the stage.

If you have had the opportunity to see this show, feel honored you got to witness Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema in their heart wrenching, passionate performance that is unlike any other. And to those who did not: you best hope you get the opportunity to witness this incredible slice of history soon!

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