This morning, I had the honor to take Dreamgirls cast member Aubrey Poo (pronounced Poh-oh) to four radio stations for interviews. (Thank you, Bob, Phil, Carmelina, Kiki and Carlos!) Aubrey is a South African native and speaks with an accent that delighted everyone he met.
He and I talked about theater and about apartheid, South Africa’s sanctioned racism. Apartheid came to its legal end in South Africa less than 20 years ago. Aubrey is old enough to have seen the end of apartheid and to understand the issues it caused — and still causes — for his fellow South Africans.
In Dreamgirls, Aubrey plays Curtis, the Cadillac salesman-turned-record-producer who gives the three girls at the center of the story their break. To get their break, the black singers have to soften their music for acceptance by white audiences.
Aubrey got the part here because he played the same role in a South African production two years ago. In South Africa, he’s rather well known. He played Nelson Mandela in a stage production of Mandela Trilogy and starred opposite Jennifer Hudson in the movie The Life of Winnie Mandela. He is making his American stage debut on this tour.
He said that he wished Dreamgirls could have had a longer run in South Africa. It played for eight weeks. He compared it to the run of Disney’s The Lion King, which ran a year. He thought that the story of Dreamgirls had more to offer to South Africans than The Lion King and wished more people had gone to see it. But, he said, in South Africa having 26 black people on a stage can still be seen as a political statement. Moreover, he said, whites in South Africa made little attempt to connect with the story.
I mentioned that South Africa’s distance from apartheid now seemed approximately equivalent to the middle of this country’s era of Reconstruction. Twenty years after our Civil War, minstrel shows, which had been an entertainment mainstay before the war, were touring the country again to packed houses. Minstrel shows featured white performers in black face playing highly caricatured black men and women.
When newly freed slaves decided they could put on their own minstrel shows to display their talents, but with more truthful characters, they found that no one wanted to see that. Instead, in order to sell tickets to their shows, these black performers had to put on black face and play the same shuffling characters the white performers played.
Aubrey wanted white people in South Africa to see Dreamgirls because, even though it’s an American story, he believes it resonates in his native country, too. He wanted people to stretch beyond the familiar, the immediately comfortable, which is something that American audiences couldn’t do in the days of the minstrel show. Some still have trouble doing that today.
Theater — apparently in both South Africa and the United States — invites you to explore, to reach beyond what you can immediately accept. That’s Aubrey’s invitation. It’s also mine. I hope you accept it, if not for Dreamgirls, then for another show coming soon to the many theaters here in Albuquerque.
Terry S. Davis
Photo: Levi Walker