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Jacob Cox
Jacob Cox

Woza Albert Script

This article investigates the important South African anti-apartheid protest play, Woza Albert!, written and performed in 1981 by Percy Mtwa and Mbogeni Ngema, which retells the story of Jesus Christ so that it takes place in apartheid South Africa. The article begins with a historical overview of how the play came into being, followed by an exposition of the play's script, specifically focusing on the way it reimagines the gospels' account of Christ's life, death and resurrection. The article finally engages theologically with the play (with the help of Hans Urs von Balthasar's theological dramatic theory), in an attempt to see why Woza Albert! has proved to be such an effective literary tool in speaking out and protesting against the injustices of the apartheid state.

Woza Albert Script

That said, I also feel obliged to pass on my reservation. For all the cleverness that attends its execution and for all the right-thinking stances it takes, the play is so far outdistanced by the players as to leave the text flopping in the dust. The script was apparently generated through improvisations by the actors and the director, an approach similar to that followed by South African actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani and playwright Athol Fugard, when they forged the stunning "Sizwe Banzi is Dead" and "The Island."

The method of creating work had traditionally been hierarchical, with an existing script, an interpretive director and performers who enact the collective vision of the playwright and director. During the seventies and eighties the performers themselves were given more interpretive freedom, hence the multiple creators of this work with Barney Simon as a facilitator for this creative process. During the creative process many of the traditional theatrical conventions of space, movement, mood, symbolism and language were challenged.

A landmark moment came in 1994 with the founding of the New Voices Play Development Program. The program was designed to nurture and promote new plays by emerging and established African American writers. Now in its ninth year, New Voices has cultivated four plays for our stage: Harriet Tubman Loved Somebody, Full Circle, Passages, and ...Continued Warm. A part of the 2000-2001 season productions, ...Continued Warm--a fictional retelling of a significant racial uprising in 1943--was devel- oped as part of the Detroit 300th anniversary celebrations recognizing the founding of Detroit. The script was written by local writer Jeffry Chastang. Full Circle, an earlier script by Chastang was honored by receiving the prestigious Roger L. Stevens Playwriting Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Other plays have gone on to be produced by still other theatres.

How does this type of theatre come about? Where is the seed planted? Without putting too much emphasis on any kind of authority in saying so, the development of a creative concept through a spawning bideab is how Actress & Girl was conceived. For Rachael Neary[vi], "I came up with a rough idea of two girls on the side of the road and I took it to Maude. We wanted to develop a script that revolves around strong female characters" (pers.comm., 28 March), that was it. The desire to share something appears, and the next steps are weaving together more and more influences. Depending on the level of awareness, those influences can most likely be subsumed to be text(ual) references to other plays or styles. The kind of beginning dialogue in onebs head might go like this:

Now it won't serve this paper to dive into a semiotic discussion on the philosophy of "text" and what constitutes "text" and its value in society. Suffice to say that although Actress & Girl worked with texts and even became its own, the way that the text was "written" lent itself towards the devising process. This process that is led by the body, by the performer, and not necessarily the words provided beforehand by the playwright. Script writing was the last thing on everybody's mind, "Simona [the director] joined us so it was a dual play/write process that morphed into a play/directed version, and then we wrote the script" (Neary, 2015: pers. comm., 28 March). The script came into being at the end, and even then is subject to change, as is the way of collaborative theatre.

Eugenio Barba and his Odin teatret worked with the idea of a "Third Theatre", this is a theatre form that is "collective". As opposed to the First Theatre, which is commercialised and subsidised, and the Second Theatre, the avant-garde form that abandoned the actor for the director (Roose-Evans, 1970: 165). Even though there is a mighty emphasis on the spoken-word (text), I believe Actress & Girl can still be considered an example of Barba's Third Theatre because of the nature of its collective/collaborative process. Its script or text, for all its omniscience, is malleable too. The authority of it is like humus, or potting soil; the fertiliser to the work/art. What is important, what is valuable to us is not this (fundamental) dirt but the rich plants and flowers and food that surface from it. Neary claims, "we did a joint process of writing and performing - but ultimately we performed more" (pers. comm., 28 March).


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