There is no word for "theater" in Zulu. This does not keep anyone from creating it, of course, as Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema are currently demonstrating in "Woza Albert!" at the Kreeger Theater. But it has caused some problems, particularly for Mtwa, whose father was opposed to his son's choice of occupation.

"You can say, 'It's a play,' " he explains, "but once you say, 'It's a play,' they say, 'You've got time to play when other people go to work?' My father could not understand what theater was, why there should be theater. He could not understand why we should go to the bioscope and pay 25 cents to go in and see people moving on a wall and then come back with nothing, no profit, and we have made a rich person richer. That was his philosophy. A very terrible fellow."

Mtwa, 29, and Ngema, 28, speak with a lilt, pausing occasionally for an exchange in Zulu with their stage manager, Dixon Setlare Malele. They are both wearing leather caps acquired during their travels in America; one cap is from New York, the other from Berkeley, Calif. This is their fourth trip to America with "Woza Albert!," which they created with director Barney Simon in 1981, never dreaming of the enthusiastic response their simple show would receive in foreign lands.

Composed of vignettes inspired by different people's responses to being asked what they would say if Jesus Christ reappeared in South Africa, the play is largely humorous. But there is a shadow of satire throughout, a perhaps inevitable byproduct of a country where blacks are legislated out of the mainstream and anyone can be imprisoned for 180 days without charge or trial.

The play's appeal has a lot to do with the performances by Mtwa and Ngema, who seize the stage like triumphant warriors and people it with a range of characters, both black and white. But it may also have something to do with our appalled fascination with South Africa, a country that, it has been said, is its own worst propagandist. Yet Americans do not have a clear picture of South Africa. While well aware of the absurd rules that separate the races and the extraordinary lengths to which the white-controlled government goes to exclude blacks from power, we are uncomprehending of why blacks who leave still want to go back -- how they can be homesick for a country that oppresses them so righteously. Nor do we understand how what Simon calls an unprecedented era of artistic freedom can coexist with a regime that imprisoned the two actors for no stated reason while they were writing the play.

They do not know why they were kept in solitary confinement, in separate prisons, for 33 days, nor do they know why they were set free. Possibly it was because they were staying with a politically active friend. Possibly it was that incomprehension of theater.

"I was typing the play and he Ngema would read from the material," Mtwa says.

"So someone maybe informed them that we were typing pamphlets to distribute," Ngema says, picking up the story. "We explained that we were typing a play, and that then we would rehearse it, and they said, 'So when did you distribute the pamphlets?' "

But despite these misfortunes, they are homesick. Indeed, their first response to another country England , a place where they did not have to carry a passbook or fear imprisonment, was not a sense of freedom but, rather, misery because of the cold weather.

"After three weeks I wanted to go home," Ngema says.

"I don't think you can just switch over immediately," says Mtwa. "When you first talk to a white, if you have lived in South Africa a long time, you still have that attitude of being submissive, until finally you outgrow it. You realize that here it is different. Even though you fight it in South Africa, because you have to survive you must say 'boss' and bow a little bit, even if you don't mean it."

Anyone who has seen them on stage, skillfully creating characters of different ages, adding their own music and sound effects, working with the barest of stages and most minimal of costumes, would be surprised to know that their acting credentials are few. This is the second play for Ngema -- the first was a musical in which he took over a lead role when another actor failed to appear for a performance in a rough neighborhood -- and the first time acting for Mtwa, whose previous experience was simply "singing and dancing" in the same musical.

They were both seduced by performing as children, when a favorite school recess pastime was reenacting the latest movie.

"We'd get some skins to cover us, or some old clothes, make ourselves some swords of wood," says Mtwa. "We even did 'Romeo and Juliet,' using the friends surrounding us as actors and actresses. It was something nice . . . From Monday you start saving two cents and by Saturday you had 10 cents to go to a movie." In South Africa the movie theaters are segregated, but the legitimate stages are not.

"Audie Murphy," says Ngema. "What happened to Audie Murphy? He used to be a hero . . . with dry lips. When I was growing I used to see myself as Audie Murphy.

"Yeah, Audie Murphy," echoes Mtwa.

"Richard Widmark," says Ngema, sounding wistful.

"Jack Palance. 'Sign of the Pagan,' " recalls Mtwa.

They remember another favorite, an Italian star of spaghetti westerns whose name is unknown to an American. "Giuliano Gemma," says Ngema. "I was made to understand that you could not be famous in a western unless you had an American name. So he used the name Montgomery Ward."

It is explained that Montgomery Ward is also the name of a chain of stores in this country. "Ah, like Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys? I have seen this nearby."

They are homesick, they say, for the "spirit" of the African townships, the places where blacks must live, whether in the city or the country.

"You do not find that here. We are used to street life in South Africa. People know each other and love each other more. There is more attachment," says Mtwa. "Even if I don't know you I can talk to you. I can make friends."

"Here you don't do that. Here you can't just stop a woman on the street and propose love! I wonder sometimes how they get men here. How does a man get to a woman? And how does she get to a man?" Ngema says, then laughs. "In Africa, you say, 'Hey baby, can I talk to you?' "

"If a stranger is traveling and is looking for a place to sleep, he is taken in and given a place to sleep," explains Mtwa. "They slaughter a sheep, or a chicken, and make some bread for him, and the following morning the owner of the house will accompany him halfway to where he is going. It is something very wonderful."

Director Simon is the artistic director of the Market Theatre Company in Johannesburg, a multiracial theater started in the early 1970s. The son of Lithuanian-born Jews, Simon is a playwright, screenwriter and director who uses theater in many arenas. He finds his material on the streets, uses the workshop as a laboratory and takes as much pride in his work teaching nurses to present nutrition and health through theater as he does in the international acclaim for productions such as "Woza Albert!" and his latest, "Black Dog," which is currently being staged in London.

" 'Woza Albert!' as you see it here is as it was done in South Africa," he says. "Potentially, theater has a powerful role the government doesn't seem to realize. At this moment we are living in a time of artistic freedom. If you live in South Africa, you stop trying to understand why the government does anything. You just live with it."