Comedy is generally based on either surprise or recognition. In the terrain of South African theatre, the genre has historically been led by politically charged humour that explores the country’s tumultuous history.
Laughter is an essential part of navigating the complexities of our nation and cultural makeup and it has been a powerful tool for reflection and critique.
People such as Mbongeni Ngema, Percy Mtwa and Barney Simon pioneered a new form of political theatre with Woza Albert! in the 1980s, positioning comedy as a vehicle for dissecting racial oppression.
Pieter-Dirk Uys, known for his razor-sharp satire, and the subversive creation of Evita Bezuidenhout, challenged societal conditioning. In a world shaped by the shadows of apartheid, these comedic explorations served as a reminder that, even in our darkest moments, laughter has transformative power.
Through the 1990s, Paul Slabolepszy explored the comedic aspects of South Africa’s sports culture with plays such as Heal Against the Head and Whole in One, while the Joe Barber series by Oscar Peterson, David Isaacs and Heinrich Reisenhofer captured the essence of urban life in the noughties in a hilarious and relatable manner, centring on family dynamics.
The landscape of South African comedy continues to evolve, embracing the power of humour to tell stories that resonate with this nation’s unique cultural identity. The subject matter has diversified into topics that are aligned to our current struggles.
On at the State Theatre in Pretoria is J Bobs Tshabalala’s Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars. The work, which enjoyed great success at the National Arts Festival and at The Market, “pulls the curtain on the lives of pot-bellied men, greedily vying for control of state resources while shamelessly deceiving the impoverished masses with their deceptive speeches”.
Using a series of playful language games, and a uniquely South African wit rooted in Xhosa idioms, Tshabalala’s satire pokes fun at African political camaraderie and brown-envelope tenderpreneurs.
Two key observations emerge from this briefly stated trajectory. First, our comedy has largely been entrenched in the political landscape, providing a humorous perspective on race, apartheid and other oppression. Comedy has been a medium through which South Africans have confronted their shared history, finding solace and unity in shared laughter.
Second, the rigid definitions of identity imposed by apartheid continue to offer fertile ground for comedic exploration. The binary terms through which race and culture are popularly understood is a playground for surprise and recognition.
Through comedic exploration, our performers play with stereotypes, challenging expectations and subverting stale notions of identity.
Matthew Ribnick’s Hoot, where a rich white man becomes a minibus-taxi driver, and The Chilli Boy, co-written with Geraldine Naidoo, where Ribnick plays an old Indian woman reincarnated as a white gangster from Boksburg, are two examples.
This playing with stereotypes is even more evident in mediums beyond theatre. Julia Anastasopoulos’s Showmax hit Jewish character Tali embraces stereotype. The comedy here rests entirely in recognition. Lesego Tlhabi’s creation Coconut Kelz skillfully navigates the tension of racial expectations, providing commentary on societal preconceptions. Tlhabi presents as a black woman but embodies the accent and prejudice of a stereotypical privileged white person. This tension between expectation of race and identity, in contrast to the way the character speaks and expresses her views, is ripe with comedy.
The comedy arising from “contradictory” identities challenges the rigid, binary expectations of South African society. It is through this challenge that laughter becomes a powerful agent of change, prompting audiences to reconsider their perceptions and biases.
The Market Theatre is premiering my own new offering into the South African comedy tradition. A Marry Little Christmas is set on an unnamed golf estate in Johannesburg and is loosely based on observations of my own family dynamics. Arnold Hartmann, in his quest for the perfect Christmas proposal to his girlfriend, encounters a cascade of comedic misadventures as two very different families converge.
In A Marry Little Christmas, the power of laughter becomes a unifying force. As the characters navigate misunderstandings and cultural clashes, the audience is invited to find humour in the chaos.
Beneath weighty narratives, South Africa is inherently a funny nation, finding humour in the face of adversity and cultural conflict. Laughter, as it turns out, is an indispensable coping mechanism in a country that has weathered its fair share of storms.
• Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars runs at The South African State Theatre until 3 December.
A Marry Little Christmas runs at The Market Theatre from 29 November to 24 December. Book at Webtickets.
• Greg Homann is the artistic director of The Market Theatre Foundation.