There is, in the grand scheme of things, a kind of theater that has emerged in the past decade that can only be termed black South African. It is unique unto itself: fierce, joyous, passionate, synchromeshed, at once simple and complex--bounding with energy and strung together with precision a capella singing and choreographed movement that have tribal and martial overtones.
The latest incarnation of this black South African form of super-expression (now commonly referred to as "Township Theater") is the Earth Players' "Bopha!" As witnessed Sunday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, it brings with it all of the juice and exuberance witnessed in such previous black South African entries as "Asinamali!" and the unforgettable "Woza Albert!" that came to us earlier, courtesy of the Mark Taper Forum.
"Woza" was the work of two exceptional black actors, Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa. "Asinamali!" was later put together by Ngema; "Bopha!" is the fruit of Mtwa's labor. Those exclamation points at the end of the titles are earned: They're a measure of the triumphant level of self-affirmation compressed into these pieces.
Pieces they are. The word play , in the traditional sense, doesn't apply. "Bopha!" and the other pieces before it are a form of human explosion. Of them all, "Bopha!" is also the most intellectual. It takes on the thorny paradox of black policemen in South Africa--at once subjugated to the directives of white officers, and authorized to shoot on their own kind. Men on a leash, sanctioned to be traitors.
Ticklish stuff, indeed, that Mtwa handles gingerly and well. On the usual bare stage with a single hat rack and a row of hooks from which hang just a few costume modifications, we are confronted by three men who play a variety of roles. Principally, though, they represent the members of one family: Police Sgt. Njandini (Aubrey Radebe), his hapless brother, Naledi (Aubrey Maolosi Molefi), and his radical son, Zelakhe (Sydney Khumalo). The stage is set.
In the course of the next 80 minutes, we see the inevitable confrontations between cop and militant son (a mild militant at that), and cop and jobless brother (whom he coerces into reluctantly joining the force), peppered with scenes of great humor, dismay, passion, self-confrontation and redemption. Tragedy, the insistent handmaiden in black South Africa, hovers in the background.
There is a handy double meaning to the title. "Bopha!," the program tells us, means arrest and also means resist, depending on whose mouth it's in. What is remarkable in this theatrical hybrid is the degree to which the dramatization, no matter how serious the subject, remains jocular.
Consider the hilarity that results when a black man is dragged into the station for having accidentally wandered into a "for whites only" toilet; the bewilderment of the recalcitrant Naledi's officers when he naively inquires if it's all right to arrest white people (anathema for a black cop) or to witness an act of miscegenation and do nothing about it (double anathema); the panic and discomfiture when Naledi arrests a white man anyway. No wonder he gets fired. He'd only joined the force because his choice was between six months in jail and deportation (as an unqualified worker), or six months in police training camp and a job.
Behind all this lie real conflicts and painful moral struggles that manage nonetheless, in Mtwa's script, to end on a small note of triumph. Even the callous Njandini is made to see the error of his ways and publicly resign his position. A simplistic resolution, yes, but necessarily optimistic and suited to this style of direct approach.
Molefi is an ideal Naledi, a sort of spunky and unafraid Sad Sack. Khumalo walks around with a sweet air of injury accompanied by the well-advertised determination that he intends to right his grievances. Radebe is the boor, who eventually exhumes some deeply concealed humanity. But it is the performance of these three together that singly defines "Bopha!" In South African theater, as in South African life, it is the collective uprising that counts.
Performances at 514 S. Spring St. run tonight, Thursday, Friday and Saturday only, 8 p.m. Tickets: $20-$25; (213) 622-3771.