Cary Gee finds that South African drag queen Pieter Dirk-Uys is a compelling and politically-charged master storyteller
Writer, actor, satirist, impressionist, anti-apartheid hero, drag queen and the “most famous white woman in South Africa”, Pieter-Dirk Uys wears many hats, both literally and figuratively in his latest outing.
Some are worn purely for decorative purposes, others are donned to expose the “mock in democracy”, or to inhabit one of the many characters that have contributed to his legend, during a 50-year career as thorn in the side of the South African government, regardless of its colour.
In the era of political correctness and the Me Too movement When in Doubt, Say Darling is an exercise in housekeeping. Uys takes his broom and sweepsaway any veneer of respectability that has settled beneath the political umbra.
Whether comparing the divisions of Brexit to the segregation of apartheid South Africa, and, by extension, Nigel Farage, to the old white men that ruled his home nation, or declaring the current ANC government, that is being renewed in a general election that is taking place as he speaks, as the “best that money can buy”, Uys’ satire has lost none of its muscularity. That his spleen erupts with the politeness of a middle-class Jo’burg hostess simply adds veracity to his never-less-than-compelling narrative. Uys remains a master story teller, a tribute to his outstanding skills as both dramatist and actor.
Fearing that it is no longer OK for a white man to impersonate a black man Uys circumnavigates his dilemma by “impersonating apartheid leader PW Botha impersonating ANC leader Jacob Zuma”. It’s a stroke of genius that allows him to deflate two monstrously corrupt egos at the same time. “I used to need make-up to do Botha. Now I actually look like the old bugger,” rues Uys, now 73, as he slips into character.
But it is when adopting one of the many female alter-egos that made Uys one of the most famous and politically-challenging drag queens that Uys’ luminosity really shines.
New character, Mrs Peterson, a mixed-race Muslim woman, dons her headscarf and worries about a forthcoming trip to London, to visit her son and see the “Trooping of the Coloureds”, while a Jewish princess would rather remain in South Africa “and be murdered in her own bed, than have to get up and make it herself”.
But it is social-climbing (and now paid-up member of the ANC ) Evita Bezuidenhout whom many here this evening have come to see, and after Uys delivers a masterclass in wearing false eye lashes, while repeatedly metamorphosing into the “wrong white woman”, first Angela Merkel, then Thatcher/ May the transformation into Nelson Mandela’s “beard” and second wife is complete. So too is Uys’s remarkable journey from a young man “who doesn’t do women” into one of the world’s most humane raconteurs.
“Never underestimate the people we laugh at,” he warns. There’s little chance of underestimating our host this evening.
When in Doubt, Say Darling is at the Soho Theatre in London until 25 May
Go to: www.sohotheatre.com