Acclaimed apartheid play ‘Ubu’ makes local premiere 

click to enlarge Handspring Puppet Company’s “Ubu and the Truth Commission” has been lauded over the world for its innovative and satirical take on apartheid. - COURTESY  PHOTO
  • Handspring Puppet Company’s “Ubu and the Truth Commission” has been lauded over the world for its innovative and satirical take on apartheid.
The Handspring Puppet Company’s production of “Ubu and the Truth Commission” is a rare theatrical hybrid – one that combines animation, live actors, film, music and puppets to dramatize the injustice of apartheid.

Incisive and brilliantly satirical, the South African company’s play makes its long-awaited Bay Area premiere at Cal Performances this week.

Written by Jane Taylor, directed by famed South African artist William Kentridge, and featuring puppets by Adrian Kohler, the show is set in post-apartheid Johannesburg during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed by the Government of National Unity to address human rights abuses.

Taylor, in Berkeley this month to participate in ancillary “Ubu” events, says the company is eager to bring the production to Bay Area audiences.

“It’s been done a lot, but it’s never been to this area – which is so striking, because California, and Berkeley in particular, were environments with traditions of popular dissent and calls for social justice,” she says. “There’s something affirming and pleasing about being able to bring it here.”

“Ubu and the Truth Commission” takes its title character from Alfred Jarry’s classic 1986 drama “Ubu Roi,” placing him in the context of the commission’s hearings. Critics have hailed the decision to represent apartheid in the character of a madman. To Taylor, a South African native and professor of drama and theater studies at the University of Leeds, it made perfect sense.

“It seemed to me that a rational instrument like apartheid situates itself inside the capacities of people who are themselves pathological and deficient,” she says. Handspring, best known for its outsized puppets in “War Horse,” uses puppetry to striking effect in “Ubu.” Puppets give victim testimony, and also play grotesques – three-headed dogs, crocodiles, vultures and more – to document police brutality and other abuses of power.

The 90-minute production, restaged in Berkeley by Janni Younge, retains Kentridge’s original animation.

Created in 1996, “Ubu" has been performed around the world – in Weimar, Eastern Europe during the breakup of the Soviet Union, Germany during reconciliation of East and West. Last year it was performed in Bogota and Sao Paolo – places, says Taylor, “where there are ongoing talks about peace and justice, and the navigation of some kind of transformation through the arts.”

The response, she adds, has been overwhelming.

“Over and over again, people keep saying the play was about their context,” she says. “It’s absolutely not, but what’s so compelling is that, if you make a work that is very local and particular about a set of circumstances, it immediately becomes universal.”


Ubu and the Truth Commission

Presented by Handspring Puppet Company

Where: Zellerbach Playhouse, Bancroft Way at Dana Street, UC Berkeley, Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. May 1-2, 3 and 8 p.m. May 3

Tickets: $78

Contact: (510) 642-9988,

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Georgia Rowe

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