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FESTVAL: A CELEBRATION OF THE ARTS : AN ANTHOLOGY OF ANGUISH : 'Bopha!' is a tough but sensitive play, the story of black policemen caught between South Africa's apartheid system and their own communities, even their own families

August 16, 1987|MICHAEL PARKS | Michael Parks is The Times' correspondent in Johannesburg.

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?"

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