Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre puts on popular South African play as Nelson Mandela fights for life

Susan Du, Summer Reporter

South Africa’s popular play “Woza Albert!” came to Evanston this month as nearly 9,000 miles away, 94-year-old Nelson Mandela completes a month-long stay in the hospital for a recurring lung infection.

“Woza Albert!,” a satirical commentary on apartheid as told through a series of vignettes portraying the return of Jesus Christ, is showing at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., until July 14.

The local production comes amid international attention on the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Mandela, whose sickness dates back to his labor in a quarry in South Africa’s Robben Island complex, where he was imprisoned for 18 years.

No creative changes were made to the play to accommodate Mandela’s dire state of health, but the cast and crew have been mindful of the headlines, artistic director Tim Rhoze said.

As a close allegory to Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” “Woza Albert!” features two actors – Armand Fields and Ebony Joy – who play a wide assortment of characters “waiting” for deliverance from apartheid by “Morena,” or Christ. Fields and Joy give an aerobic series of performances as political prisoners, homeless people, day laborers, police officers and children with ambitions to attend school in a post-apartheid state. Their costumes hang on clotheslines strewn around them on a set constructed to resemble the corrugated shack settlements of Johannesburg.

Wearing pink clown noses on an elastic band around their necks for whenever they turn into Afrikaner oppressors during South Africa’s liberation movement, Fields and Joy tempt the audience to laugh sporadically, though always uneasily. Farcical tangents and off-hand jokes are consistently offset by reminders of human rights abuses under South African apartheid.

“They arrest us for nothing so what can we do?” Fields’ street guitarist character asks early in the play when his employment pass is rejected by a cop.

He is later answered by the same actor’s bricklayer character in a plea to Christ.

“I know you don’t like miracles, but these are bloody hard times,” the bricklayer character responds.

Rhoze introduced the play to the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre for his third and fourth seasons in the role of artistic director. Although he has never visited South Africa, Rhoze recreated “Woza Albert!” from books and documentaries on the country’s anti-apartheid struggle.

“Oh, it was pathetic,” Rhoze said of learning about the movement. “You would have thought that at that time, everything would have been different.”

Delivered to an Evanston audience with little connection to South Africa during its apartheid years, “Woza Albert!” nevertheless had local applications for some viewers.

Rachel Williams, a senior at Evanston Township High School who volunteers for the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, said the play inspired her to do her own research on the history of South Africa, which she found to be in some ways comparable to race conflicts in contemporary America.

“I think it kind of reflects Chicago, how there’s so much violence in Chicago and how the police don’t really acknowledge the people when they should,” she said. “Apartheid and how it’s portrayed, I just find it puzzling how people treat other people.”

Summer reporter Susan Du can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/shijundu.