New York

“Ubu and the Truth Commission”

The Public Theater

Standing on a large wooden table, on what is a bare stage save for a stuffed vulture perched on a metal stand, a man dressed in ragged white underwear, T-shirt, and black lace-up military boots pantomimes an evening stroll with a large, three-headed dog puppet. Behind the table, a screen shows a black-and-white animated film evoking, through the use of cartoonlike drawings, the horrors of police brutality. This scene occurred during the Handspring Puppet Company’s performance of Ubu and the Truth Commission, which was directed by South African artist William Kentridge and was part of the fourth International Festival of Puppet Theater held at the Public Theater. The dog walker is none other than Pa Ubu, the mythical and at times ludic figure (originally created by French playwright Alfred Jany in his 1896 Ubu Roi) known for his abuses of power and general excesses. Jane Taylor wrote the script for this highly entertaining multimedia performance, recasting Jarry’s character as a white male member of the ruling class in apartheid-era South Africa. Within this context, Ubu (played by David Minnaar) is rendered particularly reprehensible: the evil perpetrator of numerous acts of violence ranging from bombings and torture to outright murder.

The immediate story revolves around these human-rights abuses and Pa Ubu’s subsequent fear of the post-apartheid Truth Commission. Throughout the production, three unnamed characters, played by Basil Jones, Adrian Kohler, and Louis Seboko, manipulate two-foot-tall doll-like puppets (“witnesses” to the apartheid regime’s reign of terror) and two larger, animal puppets: the three-headed dog and the Ubus’ pet crocodile Niles. The play opens with Ma Ubu (Busi Zokufa) bemoaning the fact that her husband’s infidelities have been keeping him out late night after night. In one revealing scene, she lies in bed listening to him shower, convinced that he is washing off the evidence of his trysts. Across the stage, Pa Ubu stands in a small booth washing away the blood of his deeds. Projected on the back screen is an animated cartoon featuring a shower head issuing forth hands, feet, and other body parts, which are subsequently flushed down the drain. When, toward the end of the play, Ma Ubu discovers the true nature of Pa Ubu’s nocturnal absences. she is far from horrified by his murderous exploits. As she reads the litany of abuses tothe audience (again with the animated film filling out the visuals), she is overjoyed to learn that he has not been unfaithful to her.

The combination of live actors and animated cartoons in theatrical production, a trademark of Kentridge’s, serves to destabilize the audience’s conceptions of the real. Perhaps the most powerful moments of the performance occur during the witnesses’ testimonies, which are narrated by the puppets in various native languages, with simultaneous translation in English. Paradoxically, the puppets become more sensitive than the humans: The cold and dispassionate voice of the interpreter is in stark contrast to the emotional memories of the inanimate witnesses.

This distancing device was accentuated by the large, black-and-white animated film, evocative at once of the racial categories of apartheid and of the cliché of “things in black and white.” Kentridge employs both crudely jointed paper cutouts and white chalk drawings in the film, and the effect is like that of a diagram on a blackboard in motion. Documentary footage of military marches, local uprisings, police beatings, corpses, as well as, finally, images of victorious black Africans, is spliced into the film at its conclusion.

The play ends with a dramatic rewriting of history by Ubu, who stands at a podium alone on stage confessing before the Truth Commission and begging for absolution. He is granted amnesty, and, in a highly ironic ending that echoes the original Jarry play, Ubu, his wife, and Niles are wheeled off the stage to a new beginning while the screen behind them shows an animated film of a boat sailing into the sunset. Only the vulture, permanently positioned downstage left facing the action taking place, squawks indignantly when the distortions of the truth and perversions of justice become too much to bear. Insofar as Kentridge positions the vulture as a placeholder for the spectator, the latter’s participation in and judgment of the events are encouraged. Indeed, this is Kentridge’s greatest achievement with Ubu and the Truth Commission. In the end, the audience is left to act as the conscience and memory of centuries of exploitation and oppression—a history we will not forget.

Alexander Alberro