PIETER DIRK UYS on being funny about things that aren’t funny
Armed only with a suitcase full of costumes, a sense of outrage and pages of witty words against society’s ills, Pieter Dirk Uys has left South Africa with a legacy of laughter that has lightened even the darkest times.
Sounds like he died
“Being funny about things that aren’t funny, being successful huge paying audience with stories no one wants to hear: that’s my show business”, declares Pieter Dirk Uys.
I first interviewed Pieter six years ago, making the pilgrimage to Darling to touch the hem of the great humorist. Along the N7 to Malmesbury, the sky opens like a yawn and I feel myself shake off Cape Town and slide into a more relaxed small town South African pace.
Inside the darkened space of Evita Se Peron, the train station that Pieter converted into a theatre, the Afrikaans memorabilia that crams the walls is cloying. While waiting for Pieter, I’m reminded of reluctant visits to the mouldy homes of old relatives.
What ensued is not so much an interview as a graceful onslaught of verbal dexterity. Pieter slipped in and out of character, becoming Evita Bezuidenhout and Pik Botha, by turns, giving me the impression that he uses any conversation as an opportunity to practice timing. He didn’t chat, he delivered speech, peppered with idioms that have slid into South African vernacular. In the tradition of Shakespeare’s fools, his phrases summed up the state of play in society: “Love your enemy, it will ruin their reputation”, “I put the mock in democracy”. For two hours he held my attention in the palm of his hand with a sweeping intelligence which embraced politics, people and history.
Pieter is best known as a performer, but he’s also a remarkable writer who has produced a prodigious amount of words on the page. He fears writers block but it’s never even come close. It’s not euphoric inspiration, but a structured approach that ensures his outpourings. He starts with the title of the show: (A Part Hate A Part Love, Dekaffirnated, You ANC Nothing Yet, The End Is Naai, Elections & Erections) before focusing on the content, exploring the people and issues that are currently offending him, then reflecting his anger through the prism of humour. As he says, “Anger makes for dull entertainment. And ‘entertainer’ is the job description in my passport.”
It’s a fine line to walk, and he knows it: George Bernard Shaw famously said “if you want to tell people the truth you’d better make them laugh, or they’ll kill you.” Naturally Pieter has coined his own version of the quote: “most of the things I say are not jokes. They are the truth. But the truth can be very funny.”
Pieter swears by what he calls a “magical definition: “49 per cent anger vs. 51 per cent entertainment has always been a good guide for me through the thirty years of staying on top of my profession.”
Later, when Pieter opened the door to his home, we were greeted by a frenetic flurry of white Maltese(?) dogs wearing fabulously kitsch, jewel embossed designer collars. Once inside, cats slinked out of the shadows and rubbed insouciantly against our legs. Pieter admitted he prefers pets to people and finds relationships trying. The walls of his home were full of nostalgia, except that Evita, nowhere to be seen, is usurped by photographs of Sophia Loren.
The origin of Evita can be traced to an impulsive act by an adoring sixteen year old boy. While on holiday in Italy, Pieter chanced on his idol Sophia Loren’s apartment. On a whim, he pinned a note to her door, with his address in Cape Town. To his astonishment, when he returned home, there was a letter from the star waiting for him. This was the start of a forty year friendship that has continued and deepened to this day. Sophia is the role model and style guru for Evita.
I think of Pieter as an institution, but it wasn’t until he was 36 that he found the formula that he has perfected, refined and still employs, at age 64. Until then, he wasn’t much of an actor. It was only in 1981 with Adapt or Dye that he found his niche – the one man show, embodying various characters, most notably Evita, that he used as mouthpieces to voice their own prejudices. Ironically, the more he disappeared, the more the limelight found him.
Adapt or Dye was no major onslaught against the system and Pieter was been accused of being obsequious by more firebrand performers, most of whom have disappeared, while Pieter has gone from strength to strength. Pieter’s father was an Afrikaner and he was brought up with a strictly subservient attitude towards authority. Pieter hated racism, but loved many of the racists. To publicly speak out against the regime was a challenge he could only accomplish by wearing a wig and lipstick.
Pieters most remarkable feat is to have been accepted by both the Afrikaner and the black cultures. Evita allowed him to part the red sea of racism and walk head held high between both parties, offering koeksisters all round. Gender helped too: In the patriarchal realm of politics, a woman, a wife of a politician, could get away with so much more than a male actor.
A deeper question is what drives Pieter’s need to reconcile opposing views? His relationship to racism is complex, and rooted in his ancestry. His mother, an accomplished concert pianist, fled to South Africa to avoid persecution by the Nazis, and to raise a family in …Apartheid South Africa. Truly, out of the frying pan into the fire. Typically, Pieter turns it into a joke: “As an Afrikaner Jew I belong to both chosen people.”
I imagine that growing up not only gay, but attracted to boys of a different colour, placed him at odds with society’s sexual and racial stereotypes and sensitised him to the need to find nuance and balance between extreme opposites such as black, white, male, female, good and bad.
One can trace the arc of Pieter’s life from being alienated to being accepted. This achievement is attributable to Pieter’s qualities as a human being – humility, hard work, humour, but also the fact that theatre gave him a platform. He calls theatre his addiction, saying, “Theatre is the only place that I feel safe.” If being who you are isn’t exactly comfortable, theatre, like a drug, affords you a temporary escape, allowing you to be, temporarily, whoever you want, encouraging you to dress up, change sex and paint yourself whatever colour you choose. In the guise of Evita Bezuidenhout, comfortable in her skin and her role in society, Pieter could become the uber –establishment. But the plot might not be without a deeper truth. Pieter’s mother committed suicide by throwing herself off Chapman’s Peak when Pieter was ..years old. Speaking about the traumatic event, he draws an imaginary frame in the air saying, “you put it there. You never get over it.”
Pieter’s relationship with Evita is a psychological study in its own right. Evita doesn’t like Pieter, calls him a second rate actor who mimics her badly. In A part Love a Part Hate, Pieter wrote a biography of Evita, who was a very reluctant subject. In an astonishing sleight of hand, after the book was published, Evita publicly threatened to sue Pieter. Evita was not the first one to threaten him, but in another instant she came to his help.
When Pieter broke the rule typed above his computer: “Don’t Press Send when angry”, to wrote an uncharacteristically vitriolic attack against Mbeki, for his inaction against the AIDS virus the letter caused a media furore.
In a fabulous ruse, Pieter disarmed the situation by having Evita reply to the press, denouncing Pieter’s actions: “The ANC must rise above Uys’s attention-seeking comments. They mustn’t let a third-rate comedian turn them into fourth-rate politicians by overreacting with phrases similar to those once used by Botha’s regime.
Later, on the same day of the interview, Pieter and I went into town. Over a hazy chardonnay lunch, I was aware of the cocoon of warm appreciation that surrounded Pieter. The people at the table opposite frequently casted glances in his direction. Finally one woman came across and said “I just want to thank you for all that you’ve done.”
Six years after that first visit, I return to Darling and find Pieter fundamentally unchanged, still wearing the signature black beanie and tracksuit pants. Maybe the continual reinvention on stage enables Pieter to remain remarkably consistent in real life. His energy seems a little low, but then he’s just returned from a six week stint lecturing and performing across America. Catching up with him, I’m assured that his creativity and commitment show no sign of flagging. The swimming pool project that he’d spoken of when we first met is finally finished. When Pieter arrived in the dry gulch of Darling, he noticed the lack of a public swimming venue. Thanks to his fundraising efforts, the local kids can now enjoy a cooling dip. The project will be baptised by the project’s patron, Archbishop Tutu. The entire town has been invited to the opening ceremony and each member of the community will pour a bottle of water into the pool.
Pieter is excited about Darling’s film festival. Stephen Herter, director of the “number one film crew” recently moved to Darling. Together they are collaborating on a project that involves 14 kids making five minute films about the people in their community. During the festival, red carpets will lead into people’s living rooms where the short films will be shown.
Pieter is a master of play, who can get on anyone’s level. Would you like to stand in front of a group of teenagers and discuss sex? One could easily be eaten alive. Compelled to do something to educate the youth about the dangers of AIDS, Pieter toured, for free, with “Foreign Aids” around the schools, encountering children from every social background. Brandishing a condom “a snotty little bolletjie”, he has scores of teenagers tittering behind their hands and believing that their lives are valuable.
Part of his genius is his mastery of disguise. He’s able to fully inhabit and empathise with the figures that he pokes fun at. Pieter is never nasty, never vindictive. He has a quality of compassion that makes him resonate at a high frequency. And he’s humble, almost self-effacing, a self-contained one-man act, without an entourage, who sweeps his own stage.
He makes it look easy, but don’t be fooled. As he admits in Between the Devil and the Deep, it takes courage to stand, night after night, in front of an audience. “Do you have the guts to do it? Sometimes you end up on stage in underpants. You know you don’t look great. You never looked that good, but at least then you had hair and a flat stomach. Now you look like a goblin’s nephew from the sticks! That’s fine as long as it’s funny… Exposing myself as a goblin on stage can be more fun than imagined, although it certainly doesn’t fill the bed at night. Sometimes not even the theatre in the evening. But it keeps the rampant ego in check. Ego cancels out inspiration.”
It’s vintage Pieter, dreaming up a way of adding a flourish of fun and magic to everyday life. As Elizabeth Gawain says “It takes intelligence to be playful after one is no longer a child.” There’s nothing foolish about being a fool. It requires an immense amount of social aptitude. Step too far, you offend. Don’t step far enough and you are ineffectual. Pieter is the trickster in our realm. The bothersome figure found throughout time, in every culture, who keeps the rampant egos of the powerful in check by poking fun at them.
When I think of Pieter Dirk Uys, I don’t find any visual image coming into focus. Maybe that’s because he is protean by nature. Or maybe it’s because he’s so identified with his work that the mask and the man have become inseparable. I’m left with a sound, the sound of laughter: titters, guffaw, howls and gales of laughter follow him wherever he goes. But mostly it’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s inimitable giggle that sticks in my mind. Desmond Tutu takes unashamed delight in watching himself being mimicked by Pieter. When Pieter jokes that he loves Tutu because at least there’s one other guy in South Africa wearing a dress, Tutu starts up a rhythmical teeheeeheehe that lasts about five minutes and sounds like manna from heaven.