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AIDS tragedy amid comedy


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The white Afrikaner man appears on stage in drag wearing a scoop-necked black and red dress, a twinkling gold necklace and high-heeled shoes. He bats his eyes before beginning to talk about the rising toll of AIDS in his country.

"Once upon a time," he giggles, "we had a government that killed people. Now we have a government that lets them die."

Members of the audience seated at Johannesburg's Montecasino Theater squirm in their seats, chuckle nervously and then, as if embarrassed by their own laughter, fall silent.

AIDS and comedy are an unlikely, uncomfortable mix. But for South Africa's most popular political satirist, Pieter-Dirk Uys, that means it's ripe territory for laughs - and sometimes tears. His one-man show playing across South Africa - and making a brief run in the United States next month - is a bitter comedy about the hypocrisies, lies and prejudices that surround the devastating scourge of acquired immune deficiency syndrome here.

"I don't do jokes. But the truth is pretty funny," explains Uys (pronounced Ace).

The truth about AIDS, according to Uys, is that one in nine South Africans is infected with the virus - more than any place in the world - yet the government has done little to address a health crisis that is sending thousands of people to an early grave.

During his show, "Foreign Aids," Uys transforms himself into different fictional and political figures to lampoon the government, challenge prejudices and educate his audience about safe sex.

He tells how the South African Department of Health recently distributed 44 million condoms, stapling each one to instruction cards written in the country's 11 official languages. The problem was the staples were driven through the condoms, rendering each one defective. So, he concludes, "there are now 44 million death warrants out there!"

He impersonates Nelson Mandela blowing up a condom like a balloon. He slips on fake eyelashes and lipstick to transform himself into Bambi Kellerman, an HIV-positive stripper who asks the audience if they know where their sons and daughters are now ("They're out having sex!" she warns them). Then he dons another wig to play Nowell Fine, a "liberal" white madam who concludes, "It's easier to catch racism than to catch AIDS."

He taunts South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has drawn worldwide ridicule for questioning the well-established link between human immunodeficiency virus and AIDS and consulting dissident scientists.

Uys pulls on hospital scrubs, a black wig, surgical mask and then grasps a pipe (an Mbeki trademark) and presents himself as Dr. Thaboo MacBeki. The bookish doctor strides across the stage quoting Shakespeare, babbling nonsense about fringe theories of the causes of AIDS

"Don't confuse me with the facts. My mind is made up!" he declares. "AIDS is from Venus. HIV is from Mars."

By turns, the show moves from these hilarious impersonations to emotional tales of Uys' experiences with AIDS patients. At the show's most powerful moments, the audience is confused about whether to chuckle or cry.

Uys shares tales of his visits with children infected with the virus. He mimics the children's joy at receiving a visitor, dancing across stage, bugging out his eyes, scrunching his face, leaving the audience roaring. Then suddenly he stops, panting, demonstrating how the children suffering from AIDS are too weak to play for long. The laughter is replaced with silence.

"It's entertainment, but it's got to be biting, dangerous. It's got to be honest," says Uys. "The moment I know when the target has an apoplectic fit, that's when the fun starts. If Thabo [Mbeki] doesn't like what I do, then I'm very happy."

Uys' comedy has never been about easy laughs. The son of a German-Jewish mother and an Afrikaner father, Uys was one of the few comedians who dared to take on the dour apartheid regime. Government censors quickly banned his earliest plays and revues, leaving him unable to perform and out of a job.

Undeterred, Uys started writing a weekly column for the Sunday Express in Johannesburg in which he created an alter-ego, Mrs. Evita Bezuidenhout, who was the proper, polite wife of a ruling party parliamentarian. As a fictional character, Evita's musings were ignored by censors, allowing Uys to write the truth about apartheid-era scandals that most newspapers were not permitted to cover or were too afraid to print.

His creation became so popular that in 1981 he started a one-man show, "Adapt or Dye," featuring the Evita character. In thickly applied makeup, eyelashes, high heels and a handbag, Uys' alter ego spoofed South Africa's humorless leaders, pointing out the foolishness of the government's racist policies and offending nearly everyone along the way.

Evita took on a life of her own. Politicians and fans wrote letters to her. Archbishop Desmond Tutu kissed her on the cheek and danced with her. She is considered "the most famous white woman in South Africa," Uys contends.

"If I walked through here as Evita, there would be a mob," Uys says during an interview after a recent performance of his show at a Johannesburg casino. But as himself, Uys, an animated 57-year-old dressed all in black with a knit cap pulled on top of his bald head, barely registers a glance from the public.

When Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and elected president in 1994, apartheid was over, and so, Uys feared, was his comedy. A longtime supporter of the ruling African National Congress, Uys had no interest in skewering leaders like Mandela or Archbishop Tutu. He respects them too much.

"The last thing in the world I wanted was to make fun of them. It would be like doing Mother Teresa in drag," he says.

Before long, however, Uys started writing comedies about South Africa's new democracy and its own political scandals. ("The higher politicians climb, the more of their arses you see," he jokes.)

But none of his material had the urgency, the edge or the poignancy as it did during apartheid. Then the AIDS crisis hit.

"It's like God said, 'OK, South Africa, there will be no bloodbath, you won't become the Middle East, you won't become Bosnia. You'll get Mandela and Tutu. But you'll also get AIDS,'" he says. "Who would have thought that after apartheid there would be something worse?"

Uys wanted to make a comedy about AIDS but says he couldn't summon the courage. So he started touring South African schools to educate children about the threat of HIV and AIDS. So far, he has completed visits to about 200 schools speaking before about 400,000 students.

His experiences touring schools became the basis for "Foreign Aids," which opened in London's Tricycle Theater last year to packed houses and continues to run across South Africa and at Uys' own theater in his home of Darling, about 50 miles north of Cape Town. Next month, he will be taking the show on tour to New York, Massachusetts and Los Angeles.

"The only thing I can do is entertain people as I did with apartheid. Make them laugh at fear. Make me become less fearful," he says. "And I must say after two years I have lost my fear. I still really don't want to die of AIDS. But I tell you something - I can go for an AIDS test with about as much discomfort as I go to get a root canal."

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