In "Woza Albert!" at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, you see two half-naked men imitate a cement mixer, a moving bus, a slot machine, a speeding train, an entire jazz band, a nuclear explosion, a helicopter (complete with whirling rotors), some machine guns, Fidel Castro, a mean pair of barber's shears, police sirens and a host of South African street people and leaders.
You also see a play that lends flesh and blood to the crimes of South African apartheid.
In a series of more than 20 vignettes, "Woza Albert!" depicts the coming of "Morena" (Jesus Christ) to Johannesburg via jumbo jet: "Morena's back and South Africa has got him!" Gifted actors Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema use mime, song, dance and sweat to portray a score of characters ranging from the South African prime minister and his minions, t poor laborers and Morena himself. On a barren stage, Mtwa and Ngema need only two pink noses (for the white characters) and a rack of rags for their dramatic transformations.
What would you ask Morena to give you? television announcers ask the black population. They reply: "A new barbershop." "All the nice things white people eat." "To take us to heaven, it's terrible here."
In the play's most haunting scene, Ngema portrays a prisoner desperately trying to communicate with the incarcerated Morena. After his frantic jail-cell tappings and shouts for deliverance bring no reponse, the lonely prisoner is left crying, "Cell number six! Cell number six!" into a silence and darkness that have engulfed him.
We finally understand the meaning of the "Woza Albert!" title in the last scene: Morena comes to a graveyard and, looking for dead men to raise, settles his attention on a series of South African political heroes. Crying "Woza!" (Rise up!), Morena resurrects such South African martyrs as Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko.
While "Woza Albert!" is slow at times and not quite the equal of South Africa's best dramatic exports, it serves nonetheless as a fine example of the theater's ability to delight and inform.
WOZA ALBERT! -- At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through October 7.