Bitter, hopeful and hilarious, the sharply satirical South African fantasy "Woza Albert!" brought apartheid into sharper focus when it was performed at Arena Stage in 1984. Airing tonight at 10 on Channels 26 and 32 is a BBC television documentary on the creation of "Woza Albert!" that not only serves as an entertaining condensation of the show, but also provides a rare chance to see a dramatic work in context.
Created by black South African actors Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa, with director Barney Simon, "Woza Albert!" asks us to imagine how South Africans -- black and white -- might react if the Messiah chose their land as the stage for his second coming. This Messiah, here called Morena, arrives in Johannesburg by jumbo jet and tells the people to throw away their hated passports and follow him to Soweto. Morena, greeted as a savior by the long-oppressed blacks, is seen as a dangerous revolutionary agitator by the white government, which confronts him with disbelief, arrest, and finally, full-scale military attack.
In a multitude of vignettes combining earthy comedy and original mime, Ngema and Mtwa create efficient, detailed characterizations of a host of townspeople. With a minimum of props, the two men also evoke an orchestra, commuter trains, riot squads, and other commonplaces of South African life. There is one odd omission, however: Amid the multitude of characters, as Ruby Dee notes in her introduction to the program, no South African women are given voice.
In the documentary, the playwright/actors animatedly describe how they met while working in a music hall, formed their partnership and found their subject. "We began by discussing South Africa as a Christian country -- that's what the government calls it," Ngema says with an ironic laugh. "But surprisingly, the government's church, the Dutch Reformed Church, has been one of the main supporters of apartheid -- they call it 'God's creed.' "
As portions of the play are juxtaposed with eye-opening footage of misery and violence in South African townships, the actors describe the genesis of several scenes based on real-life encounters. "This country is big and it's beautiful and it's rich," says Mtwa. "And apartheid divides it very simply: more for the few and less for the most." Contrasting images -- of men forcibly separated from their families to work in prisonlike factories, then of luxurious Sun City, the South African pleasure resort for the privileged -- effectively, if not subtly, bear out his statement.
"Woza" means "rise up" in Zulu, and "Albert" is Albert Lutuli, the Zulu chief who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960. "Albert" also refers to Johannesburg's Albert Street. Called the "Street of Despair" by Mtwa, it is where blacks "must go and wait for the white people to come and give you work." The play, and the documentary, end as the actors resurrect the martyrs and victims of apartheid with jubilant cries of "Woza!"