Uys tackles Aids

23 September 2002

Pieter-Dirk Uys is on stage in black jeans and T-shirt, making sardonic comments as he flips through a copy of the Sunday Times. Five minutes ago he was out in the lobby, chatting with the same people who are now watching him on stage. “It’s the sign of a consummate professional – someone who can mingle with the audience and then go straight up on stage”, says an actor turned journalist. “I was always backstage, going ‘pah pah pah’. ‘pi pi pi'”.

Uys is a consummate professional. He’s grown sharper with age; this is a very angry Uys. We’re no longer concerned just about quality of life, he says; the issue now is quality of death.

Foreign Aids is a full-length show about Aids, and most of the time it’s very funny. How do you laugh at Aids? Uys can make a joke out of anything – but, he says, we’re not laughing at Aids. We’re laughing at fear.

So his character, Bambi Kellermann, widow of a high-ranking Nazi whose ashes she carries around in a carved box, goes to London once a month to get her supply of triple therapy on the National Health.

For Bambi has HIV – and then Uys whips off the blond wig and shrugs on a surgical gown, and we’ve got Dr Thaboo MacBeki, the medical expert, spouting Shelley and Shakespeare (“to be or not to be sure whether HIV causes Aids”) and trying to smoke his pipe through a surgical mask.

Uys segues almost seamlessly from one character to another. The stage is piled high with cardboard boxes, and one of them contains his props – wigs, make-up case, a shawl, high heels, a Madiba shirt.

The show, despite the title, is not exclusively about Aids. In a peaked cap, hunched over a telephone on a cardboard box, Uys is a desk sergeant at an understaffed police station taking a panic call from a woman whose house is being broken into. The suspects are three men who appeared at her gate and asked for food – “You opened your security gate? Lady, let them starve in the street, that’s what it’s for.”

Evita Bezuidenhout – “the most famous white woman in South Africa” – opens the second half of the show, dressed in a glorious Errol Arendz gown. She’s in charge of catering at the World Summit, making sure delegates get putu and wors instead of the caviar served at the last gathering of heads of state concerned about world hunger.

Ah, but one of her sons is HIV-positive. We’re back to Aids.

Uys has spent the past two years travelling to schools across the country, performing and informing hundreds of thousands of pupils about the dangers of unprotected sex. If you’ve been wondering what he’s said to ten-year-olds on the Cape flats and 16-year-olds at posh private girls’ schools, here’s your chance to find out.

For more than four decades, Uys has been sending up politicians, and nobody does them better – he no longer even needs the hat to give us former president PW Botha.

The same genius works when he describes the children – the little boy at Nazareth House in Jo’burg who discovered to his intense delight that Evita Bezuidenhout “is not a lady”; the six-year-old girl at Grabouw who sat in the front row at one of his school trips and said she knew all about sex.

It’s funny stuff, and bittersweet. Vintage Uys – and not for the squeamish.

This story first appeared on the City of Johannesburg web site