By: Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, and Barney Simon
There’s a lot going on in Woza Albert! and I’m not sure that I should even try to talk about it.
It’s a play set in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the early 1980s, so during Apartheid.
I know the basics of the apartheid system, and I’ve read some other fiction from this time, but I don’t really understand it. I don’t know the major players and the nuances of the systematic oppression or the realities of life or any of that.
So I didn’t fully understand this play.
There’s some obvious religious symbolism, much blatant social critique, and some general hidden undercurrents of tone, but other than that, I’m not sure what to think of it.
It’s always hard for me to talk about literature like this, literature that is clearly written for an intended social purpose outside of pure literary appreciation. You can’t critique the grammar, or the writing style, or the emotions. Those are all there, sure, but they aren’t what matters. It doesn’t matter AT ALL if you like this play.
What matters is that the play, in and of itself, is a protest. A formal, if sometimes elusive, protest. (There are apparently some allusions to Nelson Mandela that I completely missed.)
It’s not written (or performed) to be liked.
And so it’s hard to critique.
It certainly accomplishes its goal, insofar as its goal is to make waves and call attention to the system of apartheid. There’s no missing that.
It’s made up of 26 very short scenes (most are a page or less) and features only two actors who transition between a handful of characters who speak at times in English and at times in Afrikaans. So it’s definitely got some interesting literary merit outside of its social purposes, but the overwhelming tone of social critique is so far and above the only thing I got out of it.
It’s about the second coming of Christ, called Morena (meaning Sir or Lord), and what would happen if that second coming was in South Africa.
So you’ve got a lot of religion (although it’s surprisingly not very prominent), a ton of social criticism, a look at poverty, race, family issues, problems of urbanity, and just general unrest.
It would be interesting to read in a classroom setting, with a lot of emphasis on all of those allusions and double meanings that escaped me.
But outside of that, I just don’t know what to make of it.
If you enjoyed Woza Albert!, here are some other suggestions:
(for other books about South Africa)
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
(for similar race themes)
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
(for other race-driven drama)
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin
Dutchman by Amiri Baraka
Changes That Heal by Henry Cloud
The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner