Pieter-Dirk Uys: He has just completed a new, introspective work. Picture: THE TIMES
Pieter-Dirk Uys: He has just completed a new, introspective work. Picture: THE TIMES

The performer stares into the dressing room mirror after the show, the applause now a memory as the chatter of theatre patrons makes its way out of the lobby. He removes his stage makeup with a sponge, methodically revealing strips of skin beneath the mask of his character.

It is a deeply personal moment, the man behind the mask revealing himself to himself, and then to the world. A book can have the same effect.

In Pieter-Dirk Uys: The Echo of a Noise: A Memoir of Then and Now, Uys draws us into his unmasking, revealing the man behind the persona, and the person behind the man, the little boy who just wanted to wear long pants.

Uys pulls off a story-telling coup. He delicately takes us on a first-person journey that starts in his early childhood with a nonjudgmental innocence that suspends belief. We read his words as if they are really those of a small boy experiencing the world for the first time, despite the well-crafted storytelling of an acclaimed writer and performer. 

The reader is allowed to come of age alongside Pietertjie Uys, and the memoir is written the way memories happen — not always chronologically but like short movies imprinted in our minds, some scenes more visceral and colourful than others.

The story unravels the complexity of a young white boy growing up in apartheid SA, with his DNA rooted in Europe but most of his inspiration found around him and among the diverse people of his home on the southern tip of Africa. The book contains humour, horror, love, tragedy and hope.

He builds the characters in his life through the wide eyes of a little boy. One can almost hear the soundtrack of his childhood — played by his musical family. Music is a recurring theme. His mother defiantly played Mendelssohn and others, her yellow star refusing to fade away under the aggression of the swastika. His mother’s story and his search for the woman he didn’t really know is haunting and poignant.

He unpacks his difficult relationship with his father,  whom he charmingly describes at one point as living on “Planet Calvinista”. “One morning on the way to the Parow church, waiting at the railway crossing for the steam train, I asked Pa: ‘Pa? What is a homosexual? He turned to me, tight-lipped with laser-blue eyes, and lashed out about how disgusting it was, how against the Word of God it was, the worst possible sin!”

The housekeeper is a colourful, strong woman from the Cape Flats called Sannie. She was the “stage manager” of his life and a central character in the memoir. A notable anecdote was when she dressed up in her Sunday best to vote on April 27, 1994, while Uys showed up in shorts and slops.

The power of Uys’s belief and perseverance is blatant; a childhood obsession with a superstar eventually leads  to a lifelong friendship with her. He fell in love with Sophia Loren as a little boy, her portrait eventually replacing that of Hendrik Verwoerd (because all good God-fearing white South Africans had the latter’s picture).

“Oom Hendrik fell off the wall,” Uys writes, “I think he realised that Sophia Loren had better legs than he did.”

His father was disgusted at her “thick lips”. “Jou Sophia Loren is a meid.”

“Each time I smiled back at those red … those full lips, I knew I had committed a terrible sin … I’d fallen in love with a non-white.”

His love of Loren led him to her front door as a teenager. She wasn’t home, so he left a letter. Before long they were pen pals. They met a few years later and started a special friendship that endures to this day.

When considering how Loren went from fantasy to friend, the success of making a dream become reality, one sees Uys’s time at the Space in Cape Town and the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in context. Constantly harassed by the censor board and performing illegal shows, his ability to persevere is no surprise. Many an actor gave it all up. Not Uys.

There is very little Afrikaans in the book, just a few lines that are italicised because English just wouldn’t do the meaning justice. Writing about the censor board, he says: “Ek wou op hulle voorstoep kak en dan klop vir papier!”

Evita Bezuidenhout makes very few appearances in this memoir. This is not about her. It is about the performer who created her. It is about myriad experiences and influences that eventually shaped her.

Towards the end of the book, Uys unpacks his disgust at the old regime and how it escaped accountability, then talks about the careless crop of the present: they knew what needed to be done but couldn’t be bothered, he laments.

You’ll find many one-line gems throughout the book, such as “hypocrisy is the Vaseline of political intercourse” and don’t be surprised to hear yourself laugh out loud before wiping away tears without warning.

The memoir is delicate and funny, and packed with photographs. Its strength is its  honesty and introspection. Even Evita Bezuidenhout would love it.