The Western Cape Feature


Pieter-Dirk Uys: Everyone's Darling

It's fitting that Pieter-Dirk Uys ( and his alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout, live in a village called Darling. He's the darling of South African satire, and his speech is peppered with dramatic and warm-hearted "dahlings." Tannie (Auntie) Evita is as much a South African icon as braais and biltong.

But let's backtrack. Evita Bezuidenhout debuted in a newspaper column written by playwright Pieter-Dirk Uys in the 1970s. He dished the dirt as though he were an insider at the Nationalist Party. His mysterious source's voice grew so strong that she was soon nicknamed the "Evita of Pretoria." She hit the stage in the early 1980s, when apartheid was in full swing and the ruling Nationalist Party was short on humor.

Uys's first production, Adapt or Dye, was performed at a small venue in Johannesburg at 11 pm, a time when he hoped the censors would be in bed. The titles of his shows and some characters (all of which he plays himself) are intricately wound up with South African politics and life. Adapt or Dye, for instance, was based on a speech by former prime minister P. W. Botha, who said, "South Africans have to adapt to a changing world or die." For a country ripped apart by politics based on color, it was a play on words Uys couldn't resist.

Every performance shows an intricate understanding of the country and her people. Over the years, Uys's richest material has come from the government. Most politicians were happy to be lampooned; in an inhumane society, laughing at themselves made them seem more human. If there's any criticism leveled at Uys, it's that for all his biting remarks, he played court jester to the apartheid government and held back when he could have gone in for the kill. He would argue that shows need a balance between punches and tickles. Too many punches don't put bums on seats; too many tickles can be vacuous.

Uys is not just about comedy and satire, however. He's deeply committed to transforming society. Before the first democratic elections in 1994, he embarked on self-funded voter-education tours. He's now channeling his considerable energy into tackling HIV/AIDS, which he believes the government is ignoring. He talks at schools, where he uses humor and intelligence and pulls no punches. During his talk he demonstrates how to put a condom on a banana. This he swiftly replaces with a rubber phallus, "because," he explains with a twinkle, "men and boys don't have bananas between their legs. A condom on a banana on the bedside table is not going to protect you!" Of course the kids shriek with laughter.

In 2002, Uys was nominated a national living treasure by the South African Human Sciences Research Council. Tannie Evita also has more than a few fans. She received the Living Legacy 2000 Award in San Diego by the Women's International Center for "her contribution to the place of women in the last century." In 2005 Pieter-Dirk Uys wrote his autobiography, Between the Devil and the Deep—A Memoir of Acting and Reacting. The book is good but can only go so far in portraying a man and his alter ego, both of whom are larger than life. Here's to you, dahling.

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