Perth Festival

UBU and the Truth Commission

State Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn


DSC_8426In 1948 in South Africa, Dr D.F.Malan’s National Party came to power, turfing out the Smuts government and setting about laying the foundations of a hateful and cruel separation of the races. If you were classified ‘white’, you were at the top of the heap. If you were black, you were dumped at the very bottom.


Although many still firmly believe that the Nationalists were voted in because of their apartheid policies, it was nothing of the sort. It was, improbably, the promise of white bread – not apartheid – that swept the Nats into power. And they ruled implacably for decades with their hideous policies, ensuring the disenfranchisement of the black majority. They applied these ghastly laws with cold indifference to the misery they caused, always claiming – with breathtaking hypocrisy – to be God-fearing and guided by the bible.


During World War 2, it was forbidden to use white flour for baking. But countrywide, housewives would break the law by sifting wholemeal flour to rid it of bran – and a thriving cottage industry worked overtime to produce flour sifters which could be found in millions of households. By 1948, South Africans were tired of brown bread – and it was something as trivial as a guarantee of legally available white bread that swept the Nats into power and for decades they ruled the political roost.


Particularly in the latter years of their appalling incumbency, the secret police tortured and murdered many black citizens to ensure their ruthless hold on power – and it is to Mandela’s unblemished credit that when the Nats were finally voted out of power, there was little vengeful retribution on the part of the newly enfranchised black majority. And the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring out into the open innumerable horrific events engineered by a cold, cruel government, was an important safety valve for airing understandably shocking grievances.


But it is a cruel irony that while black citizens now have the vote, most have little else. Poverty is widespread, crime rates are very high – and reckless promises on the part of black leaders that there would be jobs and rising standards of living for all in the new South Africa have not materialised for millions of embittered black citizens – and endemic corruption at the very highest levels has exacerbated matters.


UBU is set in this latter period. It’s ribald, whacky, loud and hugely entertaining. It is also very disturbing. The two main protagonists are Pa Ubu, played by Dawid Minnaar, the former policeman (who doesn’t really regret anything he’s done) and Ma Ubu, his black wife in a relationship that would have been unthinkable and severely punished in apartheid South Africa.


As Ma Ubu, Busi Zokufa is a delight. With a booming voice, which occasionally alters to a squeak – and immense energy, she moves about the stage as if it were her natural milieu. Alistair McCall Smith’s description of Precious Ramotswe of No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency as ‘traditionally built’ would apply, too, to Ma Ubu, who, delightfully, trips the light fantastic, moving about the stage as if it were her natural milieu. Minnaar, on the other hand, invariably garbed in underpants and vest (has he any other clothes, I wonder?) is a dour presence with an absolutely authentic Afrikaans accent. The two get on fairly well but there’s tension and some bitterness between the two because of Pa Ubu’s philandering ways.


Added to the mix are three puppeteers who do wonders with three scene-stealing dog heads and a rather crotchety but articulate crocodile.


Reminders of the country’s violent recent past are provided by confronting black-and-white drawings of people being tortured at the hands of the police. These are flashed onto a screen at the rear of the stage. They need no explanation and add significantly to the air of foreboding that is a hallmark of the production.


I hope UBU is seen by many around the world. It certainly deserves a long run.

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