Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa in Woza Albert. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa in Woza Albert. Picture: SUPPLIED

As friends and collaborators, Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa have over the years grown and progressed separately, but not apart.

One of the reasons for reprising their roles in Woza Albert, the iconic play that launched their fame 40 years ago, is that they had missed working together.

They met in 1979 at the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre in Soweto in what was the first assembly for the rehearsal of the Gibson Kente play, Poor Mama and the Load.

“Those who’d been chosen and cast for the play were called into the centre. As I went in all the other chairs in the venue were occupied. The only vacant one was next to him,” says Mtwa.

“We started talking. A friendship started and it was going to be a lifelong relationship,” Ngema says.

“As we talked there was a special affinity that we discovered about one another, about our goals and what we wanted to achieve. That is what grew us closer and closer together,” Mtwa adds.

They shared a common conviction and ambition to create substantial work of worldwide reach. They studied the likes of Polish theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski and spoke of taking their work to Broadway when most people were thinking about filling their empty stomachs. To have maintained that kind of confidence in the oppressive and repressive apartheid system is a feat that speaks to a special grounding. 

“We Africans have unorthodox ways of developing the spirit and our consciousness. Gibson Kente practised yoga and that distinguished him from all the playwrights in the township because it helped him transcend the environment. When we pestered him about his yoga, curious to try it out, he invited someone to teach us transcendental meditation. This helped develop our own consciousness. And once the soul develops, it seeks to be fed by knowledge,” says Mtwa.

The political climate of the time, specifically the Sharpeville massacre, the international boycott and the Soweto uprisings, precipitated the creation of Woza Albert, but the idea for the story was crystallised by a discussion in a bus by disgruntled black artists.

“We had come from Bophuthatswana as a group of Kente’s actors and were refused a performance because we didn’t have a permit to perform. On our way back, everybody was angry. Mary Twala stood up and asked what would happen if Jesus came here and saw all of this. Mtwa and I looked at each other at that very moment and knew we had found our subject,” Ngema says.

Woza Albert is a satirical look at the consequences of the second coming of Morena (Jesus) to apartheid SA. Bringing religion and politics together is always contentious, but the treatment of the play is open-ended in its imaginings, asking questions in place of giving solutions.

The duo workshopped and researched the play for two years and later had a few showcases for invited guests. Highly motivated, Mtwa and Ngema were aware that if shown in the townships, Woza Albert stood a chance of being misunderstood and quickly shut down by the state. The target was always the Market Theatre as a stepping stone to the world, and Barney Simon as a collaborator.

“This is why at some point during our tour we stopped in Port Elizabeth to see John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who represented excellence and had a close connection to the Market Theatre. Incidentally, the very first script of the play was typed out in Winston Ntshona’s home by Winston’s sister, Nomahlubi,” says Mtwa.  

Woza Albert premiered at the Market Theatre in 1981. It was an instant hit because it ingeniously articulated the plight of black South Africans without the need to emphasise the word “apartheid” in the text and by focusing on the human struggles of the oppressed instead.

Today, as SA gears up for elections 25 years after the dawn of democracy, much of the social and economic strife Woza Albert portrays is still real. This gives the play a resonant emotive quality, and despite being in their 60s, the actors perform with zeal.

Woza Albert is intrinsic to SA’s liberation history and its legacy of protest theatre. With the destruction of apartheid, a catalyst for protest theatre, came a space for new stories, new plights and new techniques. While there are pockets of innovation and urgency in the stories being told in mainstream theatre, it appears to be static. Mtwa believes a solution lies in wrestling private theatre institutions free from government funding and control.

Woza Albert came from an independent theatre environment. We the artists have to lobby the government to incentivise the private sector so they encourage the private sector to put money into private theatrical activity. This way, theatre can begin to be vibrant again,” he says.

Woza Albert is on at the State Theatre in Pretoria until March 31. It heads to PE in May and the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in June.