A balding, Caucasian 64-year-old drag queen from South Africa, satirist and performance artist Pieter-Dirk Uys has been dubbed a national treasure in his homeland, hobnobbing with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and then imitating both men onstage with untethered mockery. Uys is in L.A. through October 11 to perform his show Elections and Erections, which opened on Sunday at UCLA’s Glorya Kaufman Hall (see New Reviews); it’s at REDCAT on Friday night, then at the Gay and Lesbian Center on Saturday and Sunday.
In the guise of his alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout, Uys is South Africa’s answer to Dame Edna. The AIDS epidemic that remains uncontained in his homeland has given him a clear political mission to go into schools and, through humor, instill awareness of sexuality and AIDS prevention, conversations he still finds stifled by a tradition of shirking discussions of sex, compounded by such myths as AIDS infections can be cured by raping virgins and/or a shower.
At Sunday’s opening performance, Charlize Theron — the first African to win an Oscar in a major acting category, in 2003, for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuoros in Monster — joined Uys/Evita onstage. Theron demurred when Evita asked about her next film project, preferring to plug the Africa Outreach Project, which Theron established two years ago in order to send mobile health clinics into her country’s impoverished regions.
In the Green Room after the show, Theron slid in briefly during an interview with Uys. She said she left her small-town home of Benoni, South Africa, for Milan in 1994 — the year South Africa held its first free elections — after she won a modeling competition at the age of 16. Her absence from her native land during Mandela’s transcendent election may explain why she doesn’t follow the work of South Africa’s most renowned playwright, Athol Fugard. Fugard built a career condemning the bigotry of apartheid, but his 2007 drama, Victory, is an introspective and tortured examination of how the savagery may have simply changed its skin color. For this reason, I asked Theron if she remains optimistic about her country’s future.
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“I’m a complete optimist,” she replied. “I don’t think the word resilient fits better than with South Africa. That’s how we get through the day.”
Uys was fully aware of and empathetic toward Fugard, and of the shifts in his work. Elections and Erections contains one scene in which, at a urinal, he’s told by a “colored” (a current descriptive in South Africa rather than a derogatory throwback) member of parliament to stop making fun of the African National Congress.
Morality was so clear before 1994, Uys reflects. It was black and white; now it’s murky. He has always ridiculed authority figures — prudes and bigots. His show contains a mocking impersonation of former President Pieter Botha. But he says that as an aging, white man, he must be cautious about ridiculing his nation’s “colored” leaders, of inviting charges against himself of the racism that he’s made a career of opposing.
His brand of optimism is more metaphysical than political, depicted in his show when he tells of being warned not to visit an AIDS hospice for youth. “Those kids are dying,” he’s told. “They’re living,” he replies, before going on to describe the buoyancy of the children’s spirit.