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South African plays bid for US audience -- and understanding

Bopha! Play written and directed by Percy Mtwa. Children of Asazi Play written and directed by Matsemala Manaka. Gangsters Play written and directed by Maishe Maponya. Born in the R.S.A. ``Living newspaper'' created by Barney Simon and cast. Directed by Mr. Simon.

Lincoln Center recently played host to ``Woza Afrika!,'' a festival of plays presented by several outstanding South African companies.

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The festival opened with ``Asinamali!,'' which has already been reviewed in these columns and is now touring North America. It is scheduled for a Broadway opening later this season.

Bopha!, the second festival production that was presented at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, examines the tragically divisive effects of South Africa's apartheid system within the black majority population itself. The title of Percy Mtwa's play is a Zulu word meaning ``arrest'' and ``togetherness.'' Mr. Mtwa employs both meanings as he tells the story of three urban black family members driven by an oppressive regime to conflict and ultimate solidarity.

Aubrey Radebe plays a cautious career policeman content to enforce the white man's law. ``If you can't beat them, join them,'' he tells his skeptical brother (Aubrey Molefe Moalosi), who accepts a job on the force rather than face arrest for lack of a necessary pass. For such infractions of the rules as arresting a white man, the brother predictably gets into trouble.

The policeman's activist son (Sydney Khumalo) will have nothing to do with any accommodations. Participating in student protests, he winds up in his father's jail. Mtwa resolves the familial conflict only after police action and accompanying gunfire have led to the violent death of the policeman's wife.

As complex as it is committed, ``Bopha!'' moves through a minefield of racial, political, and ideological issues. Like other plays in the festival, it can perceive the comic possibilities even in dire situations. Playing multiple roles, the three actors have a field day caricaturing some of the white types (particularly two police officials) who populate the rapid succession of sketchy scenes. The Earth Players production was lighted by Mannie Manim.

Two short plays comprised the third program in the Lincoln Center festival. Children of Asazi, by Matsemala Manaka, opens as bulldozers move in to demolish the corrugated shacks that provide makeshift homes for the black inhabitants of Alexandra Township. Graffiti in bold letters spell out the themes of resistance -- ``TELL DEM WE BEUDIFUL,'' ``NO TO RESETTLEMENT,'' ``VIVA FRIDOM.''

Young activist Diliza Mabunu (Ali Hlongwane) breaks with his cautious father, Nduna (Peter Boroko), and enlists in the unequal fight against the bulldozers sent to wreck the Alexandra dwellings. But Diliza is also deeply concerned about the fate of Charmaine (Soentjie Thapeli), his pregnant girlfriend, and the whereabouts of his absent mother, whom his father divorced many years previously.

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The spectator is carried forward by the impetus of the play's impressionistic events, the intense though fragmentary glimpses of fragmented lives. And there is always the binding emotional element of music: in spontaneous songs (with program translations in English) and in Khaya Mahlangu's haunting jazz saxophone solos. While the larger issues of white oppression remain unresolved, there is at least a resolution, on the more intimate level, of Diliza's relations with Charmaine and with his father. The author calls the play `` a serious love comedy.'' It tells how love survives in the midst of dispossession and chaos.

The performance staged by Mr. Manaka integrated a mixture of theatrical arts into a harmonious entity. ``Children of Asazi'' was lighted by Mr. Hlongwane and Paul Abrams, with movement by Momsa Manaka. The production represented the Soyikwa Institute of African Theatre.

The Gangsters of Maishe Maponya's title are those who enforce the policies of apartheid, specifically the members of the security police -- whether white or black. Mr. Maponya's protagonist is Masechaba (Nomathembe Mdini), a fiery revolutionary poet. Masechaba falls afoul of the security police in the person of Major Whitebeard (Anthony Wilson), who turns to threats when cajolery fails to silence her. ``People who play with fire must expect to get burned,'' he warns.

Disregarding the banning order that forbids all public activity, Masechaba is taken into custody and tortured to death by Jonathan (George Lamola), Whitebeard's black subordinate. The long debate in which Masechaba assails Jonathan for serving the white power structure mirrors what must be one of the most wrenching byproducts of apartheid.

Like much agitprop drama, ``Gangsters'' tends at times to sacrifice drama for didacticism. Within these limits, it is both moving and effective in the production staged by the author. Ms. Mdini's poet preserves her scornful defiance to the cruel end. The hopelessness of her struggle is made chillingly clear in the guileful menace of Mr. Wilson's Whitebeard and the theologically rationalized brutality of Mr. Lamola's Jonathan. Simon Mosikidi designed the lighting for the physically modest production.

``Gangsters'' was presented by the Bahumutsi Drama Group, formed in 1976. The group's platform is described in a program note by Maponya, who states: ``It is the theater that challenges boldly the stuctures of the minority capitalist regime . . . a theater that will be there amidst the revolutionary forces of the dispossessed to pave a way towards their own liberation . . .''

According to coauthor and director Barney Simon, Born in the R. S. A. was initiated ``in a period of paralyzing uncertainty around mid-'85 . . . soon after the first state of emergency was declared'' in the Republic of South Africa. The present work, a clarification of the original concept, remains a tragically stark ``living newspaper'' montage. Picked out in turn by Mr. Manim's spotlighting, seven South Africans, black and white, tell of their experiences in the context of the emergency ordeal.

``Born in the R. S. A.'' is in some respects the most shattering of the works presented in the ``Woza Afrika!'' festival. At its heart is a story of betrayal. Glen (Neil McCarthy), a handsome but easily corruptible white university student, deserts his pregnant wife, Nikki (Terry Norton), and later betrays the white activist Susan (Vanessa Cooke), who falls in love with him. Advancing from paid classroom informer to undercover police officer, Glen represents not so much the progress of a self-conscious villain as the emergence of a bland instrument of evil. Mr. McCarthy spares nothing in his portrayal of this despicably deceptive young man.

The individual recitals also recount the experiences of Thenwije (Toko Ntshinga), a black trade unionist subjected to detention and torture; her loyal boyfriend, Zack (Timmy Kwebulana); and her courageous sister, Sindiswa (Gcina Mhlophe). Liberal Afrikaner lawyer Mia (Fiona Ramsay) supplies amplifying commentary even as she serves the legal needs of her desperate clients.

The techniques of the ``living newspaper'' -- including headline blowups and film projections -- have been skillfully employed by these members of Johannesburg's renowned Market Theatre Company.

Running slightly less than two uninterrupted hours, ``Born in the R. S. A.'' is both a stirring testament to courage and a graphically harrowing reminder of man's inhumanity to man as practiced in the South African republic. The simple setting of multiple platforms was designed by Sarah Roberts.

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