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Timely South African Play Stands Out in `Mayfest'

The opening of `Mooi Street Moves' at Glasgow's arts festival coincided with Nelson Mandela's historic inauguration

MOOI STREET MOVES. Written by Paul Slabolepszy. Presented by Footpaul Productions. At the Arches Theater in Glasgow.

HE is looking for his brother, this white up-country youth just arrived in a black district of Johannesburg. That much at least emerges from the distracted dialog at the outset of ``Mooi Street Moves.'' In the dismal room where his brother was living, when he last saw him, he finds instead - to his obvious and perspirational embarrassment - a young black man.

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They might come from different planets, these two characters. They don't even speak the same slang. They don't like the same games. The black man is soccer-crazy and hilariously mocks, with actions depicting monkeys chasing a banana, the white man's preference for rugby. It is the black man who is all confidence and cockiness. The white man is riddled with nervous prejudice.

This two-character play, invited from South Africa to Glasgow's annual (now 12-year-old) arts festival, ``Mayfest,'' played for six nights and won a significant award.

It had a remarkable topicality. Its opening night coincided with the day on which South Africa's first black president was inaugurated. A poster of Nelson Mandela is stuck on the back wall of the set next to the soccer posters and behind the haphazard piles of cardboard boxes containing TV sets, toasters, shoes, and other dubiously acquired goods.

After the applause at the end of the play, the two actors - Martin le Maitre as the young white man, Henry Stone, and Zane Meas as Sticks Letsebe - announced that their performance was dedicated, on this historic day, to the new South Africa and democracy. The theme of the play had already made its dedication movingly clear.

A confrontation between a South African white man and a black man on a stage inevitably becomes a symbol. They are typical, in a way. But these two also remain individuals - vulnerable human beings - and it is they who come to recognize this as the play develops.

As they begin to see each other's worth and find that they are not so different as they thought, so does the audience.

This play elicits sympathy for both characters by the end, though for much of the time Henry Stone strikes us as seat-squirmingly uncomfortable. It's as if he can't help his prejudice. The black man is a show-off and very funny with it, and his street wisdom is in contrast to the white visitor's suspicious naivete and outright fear.

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They are, of course, both in trouble, both at sea with life, but the self-styled ``middleman,'' Sticks, has learned how to cover up his desperation with bravado, criminal ingenuity, and comicality.

He lives by his wits, and not only does he believe this is his only choice, but he also believes it is the white man's only choice, too. So he tries to teach Henry his sales tactics. Henry's resistance is excruciatingly comic and pathetic.

This white man has honest ambitions (to buy equipment so he can make a living drilling for water). Like Samuel Beckett's characters waiting for Godot, however, he can do nothing until he finds his brother; he is helpless without money.

Sticks eventually persuades him that they could help each other. As a white man, Henry can sell goods to people that Sticks, as a black man, could never touch.

So they become interdependent in their efforts to survive. Though in effect the white man is now working for the black man, a kind of honor-among-thieves relationship starts to take root between them.

Disaster ensues, and a moral is drawn. But the much deeper moral question in this play's wider symbolism is not just where is Henry's brother, but who is his brother.

In poignant irony, it turns out that Sticks had actually learned his trade in the first place from Henry's absent brother, who was not the ``businessman'' Henry had thought, but a common crook. Nor is Sticks what Henry thought he was, and by the end they have both dropped their defenses. It is they who might as well be brothers.

This play is a thing of great zest, humor, and verbal wit. The acting matches the writing, and is underplayed at just the right moments so that it does not become too overtly political or moralistic: It stirs feelings, unsettles assumptions, embarrasses, and makes its audience laugh, but it doesn't preach.

I particularly enjoyed Sticks's describing and acting out how he, as a black man, went about looking for better accommodations. It was when he pretended to be an American black that he suddenly and magically became acceptable to white landlords.

The author tells me that last September an American production of his play was staged in Alexandria, Va. Previously (according to Mayfest publicity), it had ``shaken'' Johannesburg's Market Theatre. It has been popular at Glasgow's Mayfest, and is to re-appear (Aug. 23 to Sept. 3) at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. There is also talk of it being seen in London.

The play deserves wide exposure. But wherever it is staged, I suspect that the brick vaults of the Arches Theatre in Glasgow, with its subterranean back-street atmosphere and trains rumbling and shaking overhead, is the best of all possible venues.

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