South Africa is enjoying a second chance post-apartheid, but how many citizenry there or anywhere get a reprieve when it comes to unsafe sex? That’s one of the multiple starting points for Pieter-Dirk Uys’ remarkable solo show “Foreign Aids,” which in its quiet and unhyped way has been one of the international sensations of a globally minded London theatrical summer. South African satirist-comedian Uys’ latest standup piece has no production values — the set is a jumble of Save the Children boxes — and one could argue that a director might sharpen a two-act event into a tighter, possibly intermissionless emotional juggernaut. But that’s to worry about window dressing at the expense of an artist’s seemingly boundless empathy.
Now 56, Uys deserves as wide an audience as possible for a polemic — hilarious and devastating, in turn — that can’t scream its message loudly enough: South Africa may have been marginalized in the world’s eyes following the dismantling of apartheid, but when it comes to the decimation wrought in the region by AIDS, attention simply must be paid. (Estimates point to as many as 2 million AIDS orphans in the area within five years.)
Uys is angry, and who can blame him: “The house is on fire,” as he puts it. “You can’t be polite.” There’s real savagery in his indictment of an Mbeki regime that has all but closed its eyes to the risks of HIV and AIDS even as the death count escalates. (“My mind is made up,” says the Mbeki figure in Uys’ show. “Don’t confuse me with facts.”) And what can one say of well-meaning initiatives gone preposterously awry? Last year, the South African Dept. of Health distributed 40 million free condoms — stapling them to instruction cards, thus rendering them worthless or lethal or both.
The statistics, indeed, are so disheartening — one out of nine children is infected; so is 40% of the workforce — that despair would seem the only possible response. That’s why Uys’ ability to temper rage with comedy and wit seems not just theatrically astute but deeply humane as well. Watching Uys create a panoply of characters to give even Dame Edna pause (one of which, Mrs. Evita Bezuidenhout, “the most famous white woman in South Africa,” is Uys’ own Dame Edna equivalent), you emerge dizzy from the sleight of hand with which Uys switches parts (and frocks). What’s more, you’re chastened by a compassion more voluble than language, even if present-day South Africa does talk in 11 official tongues.
Some of the show is given over specifically to characters — a white liberal from Cape Town’s largely Jewish Sea Point with her (unseen) Xhosa maid, Dora; a bungling Johannesburg police sergeant adrift in an environment where a woman is raped every four seconds; and Andre from the wardrobe department, a figure fully enough delineated to warrant a play all his own. The rest allows Uys to double as reporter and raconteur, while paying tremulous testament to the transition from the old South Africa to the new: During apartheid, says Uys, “We killed people; now we’re just letting them die.”