Scene It: 'Woza Albert!' still a physical theatre masterpiece

February 12, 2019

The same way that standing ovations should only be reserved for truly exceptional plays, the referencing of a play as ‘a masterclass’ should be used sparingly for productions that are practically perfect in every aspect. In the case of the internationally acclaimed Woza Albert!, performed by Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema (the original award-winning cast of 40 years ago) at the Baxter Theatre, both a standing ovation and praise as a masterclass in theatre is more than well-deserved.


Woza Albert! poses a thought-provoking question: How would Morena (Christ) have reacted if his second coming was set in apartheid South Africa? This question is cleverly unpacked in a high-energy physical theatre style production. Workshopped and written by Mtwa, Ngema, and Barney Simon in 1981 (and first performed in 1983), Woza Albert! is still today what it was when the play was first introduced to audiences: A well-researched masterpiece with a powerful message.


As political protest theatre, Woza Albert! does not have a huge set or imposing props, because it does not need it. Its minimalist approach allows for the true meaning of the play to captivate audiences without distraction. As two world-class performers, Mtwa and Ngema (both playing various characters with chameleon-like acting, dancing, singing and even miming skills), clearly place the spotlight on the underlying issues without the need for theatrical bells and whistles: The images they physically and vocally create being so vivid that nothing else is needed to guide the audience through the narrative.

Numerous, yet interrelated, issues are highlighted in Woza Albert!, such as government oppression, political imprisonment, abuse of power, labour struggles, misplaced families, homelessness, poverty, and the constant presence of police brutality. This provides context to the idea of resistance through religion as the overarching theme. This theme is then unpacked with an appropriate sense of irony built into the narrative too.


Woza Albert! poignantly examines peoples’ differing responses to prophecy depending on their circumstances and level of hope. By focussing on the everyday struggles of the oppressed from the perspectives of vendors, barbers, manual labourers, beggars, and servants (in relation to that of the police and government agents) the play exposes the challenges faced by adults and children who live in constant need, as well as in fear of betrayal and capture. That fear is then revealed to impact on Morena and his promise of aid too. In the end, amidst the threat of destruction Woza Albert! (meaning Rise Albert!) compares injustice related ruin with hope as symbolised by the resurrection of resistance leaders.


A true physical theatre masterpiece, Woza Albert! is not to be missed. It is onstage at the Baxter Theatre until 2 March 2019, with tickets are available through Webtickets.



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