Were Percy Mtwa to stand on a street corner in Johannesburg and say half the things he says in his play "Bopha!" he would probably be arrested within minutes and charged with subversion under South Africa's severe security laws.
Yet, Mtwa's Earth Players have continued to perform "Bopha!" at home and abroad with a bold defiance of South Africa's white minority government that has been turning the country's black theater into protest theater.
"We are always making guesses about what we can say, how far we can go, and trying not to censor ourselves," Mtwa says, talking of his work and that of South Africa's other black playwrights, directors and actors. "In the end, we cross our fingers and do what we have to do. Even as storytellers, we have to take a stand, to say what needs saying.
"In South Africa today, we can't write plays about butterflies--not in this country, not in these times. There is no room here for that sort of theater, that sort of literature, that sort of art."
"Bopha!"--which the Earth Players and Market Theatre will bring to the Los Angeles Festival for six performances at the Los Angeles Theatre Center Sept. 6-12--is a tough play, but a sensitive one. It tells the anguished story of black policemen caught between South Africa's apartheid system and their own communities, and even their own families.
"It's important that people understand the dilemma of black policemen who serve the system but live in our black townships because it tells so much about what our country is going through," Mtwa says. "This system called apartheid divides people and forces them to go against one another, and that is what is happening today across South Africa.
"The play is not intended to sympathize with black policemen, but to show compassion for them and for the many others who have let themselves be used and have collaborated with our oppressors.
"Put simply, black policemen serve a system that deprives their own people of basic human rights and strips us of our dignity, and so there is great hostility toward them in the community. Now, it is even worse, because black policemen are not simply serving the system that oppresses people, but they are taking guns and shooting their own brothers and sisters, even their own children."
The political content of "Bopha!" is so strong that the play, during its previous American and British tours, struck some critics as agitprop and, consequently, flawed. Even the play's title attempts to sum up the political situation: Bopha is a Zulu word, meaning to fasten or tighten , that the police have long used when arresting, and handcuffing, blacks, but militant black youths have given it a new meaning--to resist.
In South Africa, however, audiences are accustomed to politics morning, noon and night, on television, in the newspapers and on the radio and as an endless topic in almost every casual conversation. They have found the play's vignettes on black-white relations and its caricatures of white policemen and black patriarchs so true to life that they are alternately moved to tears and laughter. They tend to take its reduction of the country's conflicts to personal terms more as a morality play than a political drama.
"In South Africa, it is very easy for us to be political, just plain political," Mtwa says, "but as artists we need to go beyond that and remember that we are dealing with the culture of the people and should enrich that . . . . For a long period, protest theater concentrated on showing the badness of apartheid; now we try to show the plight of the people more deeply and with texture."
To write "Bopha!," Mtwa and Aubrey Radebe, one of the three actors in the play and who himself was a policeman for six months, talked at length with black policemen, their families and their neighbors so that "we would be close to the people, as truthful as possible and not two-dimensional."
One of the officers, Mtwa recalls, was the station sergeant major in Kwathema, a black township east of Johannesburg, who was so well liked that everyone greeted him on the street and called him "brother."
"Bra Moses felt he was loved by the people because he helped sort out their problems, organize the passbooks (identity documents) for them and take care of their kids when they got in trouble," Mtwa says. "All that was true, but when the unrest started three years ago, people also saw him as serving a system that deprived them of basic human rights, and on that basis alone he came to be viewed as an 'enemy of the people' and his house was burned. So what should Bra Moses have done?"
In posing that question in "Bopha!" Mtwa, 34, was also writing from personal experience. His father was a policeman for a number of years but was dismissed, Mtwa says, for trying to enforce the law without regard to race, arresting white youths as well as blacks for smoking marijuana, bringing in white drunks as well as blacks. He later became a tailor in Daveyton, a sprawling black township east of Johannesburg, where Mtwa grew up, one of 10 children, and where he still lives.
"Apartheid broke his spirit," Mtwa says of his father, who died five years ago. "He had loved being a policeman until he was told that there were some laws for whites, that there were other laws for blacks and that he should not confuse the two and think that in South Africa there can ever be one law for all."
Mtwa, who says he has been arrested seven or eight times, also drew on his own experiences with the police. Once he was arrested for not carrying his passbook, which would have shown that he was permitted to live in the Johannesburg area. He was sent to a farm to work but ran away after a few days.
"About three weeks later, the police came for me," he says. "I remember that day. I got under the bed and cried. When this poor cop dragged me out, I realized he was someone who lived nearby. That was the thing--I realized here is the apartheid system setting people against each other. That's what the play talks about."
Like several other new protest plays, "Bopha!" grew out of "Woza Albert!"--the acclaimed drama that asks what Jesus would make of Christian South Africa if he returned to earth. Mtwa created "Woza Albert!" with Mbongeni Ngema, like Mtwa now a writer-director, and Barney Simon, the white playwright and director who founded Johannesburg's 11-year-old Market Theatre. He performed in it in South Africa, Britain, West Germany and Australia with Ngema.
"With 'Woza Albert!' protest was given depth," Mtwa says, "although we also found that when we got closer to the truth people often jumped back in fright. But we believe that our theater must begin to tell stories that reach the hearts of people and change the hearts of people."
The success of "Woza Albert!" also led to the establishment of two new theater companies, Mtwa's Earth Players and Ngema's Committed Artists, which seek not only to do "relevant theater" but to bring quality productions to South Africa's black ghettos, where performances are now staged like "guerrilla raids"--a quick in-and-out before they can be banned by the police.
"It's time for the talent that lies in the townships to be used fully," Mtwa says. "The people must be able to express themselves through the theater, and the theater must help them regain the dignity that has been taken from them. But for this we need organizations and money and buildings. To be an artist is always difficult, but in South Africa it is a real struggle, and you survive like a cockroach."
In South Africa, government censors scrutinize theater productions carefully, sometimes cutting lines or scenes they believe to be provocative, sometimes restricting the audiences that may see them and occasionally banning them outright. But in recent years producers have usually been able to get the restrictions set aside on appeal.
Kobus van Rooyen, chairman of the Publications Appeal Board, said recently that the board, as South Africa's "supreme court of censorship," believes there must be outlets, such as theater, for black protest while the country's majority remains excluded from the political system, and that there should be as much tolerance as possible for protest.
"When we make the audience laugh, it is better than when we hit the subject head-on," says Mannie Manim, managing director of the Market Theatre, where most of the protest plays are first produced. "When we add humor, there is a better understanding that this is theater, not straight politics, and there is some tolerance then for statements that elsewhere might be construed by the authorities as subversive."
But protest theater carries risks other than censorship. The cast of "Asinimali," a play written and directed by Ngema, was attacked by a busload of blacks while performing in Durban. Its promoter, apparently mistaken for Ngema himself, was killed in Pietermaritzburg last year. Two black actresses appearing in "You Strike the Woman, You Strike the Rock" were tear-gassed by several white men earlier this year, and two white actors in an anti-war play at the Market Theatre were attacked, again by white men, and so severely beaten that they could not perform for several days.
"With 'Bopha!' I was quite nervous at the outset because we were dealing not just with apartheid, with the overall system, but with the government and the police," Mtwa says. "I knew the play would be very powerful politically so I just told the stories of these people.
"Theater is going to reflect values, and the values we have in the South African situation are going to be shaped politically. But what we must do is bring people together and not enlarge or deepen the divisions we have. As artists, we have to keep on throwing a piece of light on the way for the next step, something that lets everyone look to see where we are heading."