Using humour to convey horrific crimes

EVENT: Bussmann’s Holiday (Thursday, 22 September; Fugard Theatre)


Jane Bussmann performs her internationally acclaimed show based on the experiences she wrote about in The Worst Date Ever. Part gonzo war crime investigation, part Hollywood satire, part doomed love story.

It’s a sad truth – perhaps it’s a form of survivalism – that there are many people who simply refuse to hear certain messages. Sometimes one can hardly blame them, so horrific is the message. But, so too are there those who insist their messages be heard, and find ways around people’s apathy to do exactly that. The use of noire humour is a fairly common medium through which to do this, but I doubt anyone other than Jane Bussmann has managed to pull this off – on paper and on stage – when the object of humour is child kidnapping and genocide.

A gig like this could go either way and, although I thoroughly relished Jane’s book based on her investigation of Uganda’s war criminal and one of the “most evil men” on earth, and, according to Google, Joseph Kony is one of them, I was somewhat gun-shy at the prospect of how well this would go down on stage. Jane’s just over an hour-long “Bussmann’s Holiday” is based on her outrageously funny book, The Worst Date Ever [or How It Took a Comedy Writer to Expose Africa’s Secret War]. I doubt the term “holiday” has ever been more euphemistically used. But therein lies the genius: the kidnapping of over 20 000 children – a conservative estimate – in Uganda is something the increasingly desensitised amongst us don’t want to read about, or, if we have already, we certainly don’t want to read about it again. Unless, of course, it’s funny, then we’ll read it, we’ll watch it. What kind of life form are we?

Jane walks onto the stage wearing a foxy red dress – she is ridiculously tiny, sinew attached to bone, which is surely the result of her almost manic disposition. She has chosen to team up the little red number with bright pink tights and a pair of precipitously high heels, giving her an appearance of partial normality, while simultaneously conveying something of the oddball about her. Her props are a projector screen and a pointer, plus a Red Bull and a glass of water, as well as the many, many publications she has written for as a celebrity journalist, a fabulous oxymoron. She’s frenetic, clearly, and, perhaps speaking a little too fast – it takes some time to acclimatise to her British accent – and takes the audience through her metamorphosis from, as she would have us believe, a naive and “useless” Hollywood appendage, to what we surely realise is the real Jane – as someone who doesn’t seem to have an inbuilt safety control. Her arrival in Uganda is less than auspicious, inasmuch anyone’s arrival in Uganda could be, and she quickly joins the dots as her camera, and her laptop, and then her notebook are mysteriously “stolen”. The Ugandan police are only interested if they can shoot the thief, who they naturally will never find. On hearing that Jane’s from Hollywood, however, one of them presents her with a truly appalling manuscript he’d like her to read. That is something Hollywooders the world over are undoubtedly harassed by day in and day out, but dear god, man, that was surely not the right time!

The virtually full theatre find themselves alternatively spurting through their noses with hilarity, and then falling deadly quiet as she delivers the bombshell – dressed up in Gucci or Prada, yes, to make it more palatable, more acceptable for the audience to laugh – and then, when they’re not looking, pushing them over the precipice.

What she has uncovered about Uganda’s secret war, which continues to torture, enslave and murder countless children as Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army builds up its arsenal with child soldiers, is bloodcurdling, and yet conveniently ignored by America and by Britain. And why? War is money, and, most of all, the war is lucrative for the Ugandan government which has been receiving foreign aid for decades, so no one is stopping Kony. They’re not even trying. Well, one conflict negotiator, John Prendergast, is trying, and so is Jane. But why, when her performances all over the world have brought these atrocities to light time and time again, does no one, no government lift a finger?

Shot through with humour and crackling with horror, this is a lesson we all ought to be taught: be smart, and do what it takes to drive your message home.