As Athol Fugard approached his “60th Birthday Celebration,” an October-November festival of his works in Atlanta, Ga., he had a last-minute twinge of misgiving. Girding himself for the revealing readings from his published Notebooks, adapted by Theater Emory, the prodigious South African playwright cracked to one of his hosts, “I feel as though you should carry me onto the stage in an open casket.”
As it turned out, no one was more alive to the words than their author. Listening, with head lowered and eyes closed, to the 1960s entries about his dying father (the unseen, pain-wracked figure that haunts his diaries, as well as the plays Hello and Goodbye and Master Harold…and the Boys), Fugard wept.
When the lights came up, he mingled for a while with the audience, remembering names with the kindly care most famous artists can only manage for wealthy backers.
The reading and reception set the tone for an often joyous and occasionally confrontational encounter between the artist and the city: five productions at three theatres, as well as an array of debate-sparking forums during his three-week resi dency.
Fugard was hardly the Great Author on a Delta Stopover collecting a life-achievement award; he came as a working artist, and needed every ounce of energy enhanced by his daily five-mile jogs (whose pace frustrated a rollerblade-mounted cameraman from CBS Sunday Morning) around Piedmont Park. “We call the festival a party–not a retrospective–for good reasons,” said Theater Emory artistic director Vincent Murphy. “We celebrate a man who’s as engaged today, artistically and politically, as he’s ever been.” Indeed, when Fugard wasn’t acting as “assistant director” (a title he relished) to Del Hamilton on his stirring 7 Stages production of My Children! My Africa!, he was directing brush-up rehearsals of the American premiere of his Playland, a co-production of California’s La Jolla Playhouse and Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre Company.
An intense, exorcistic encounter between a black night watchman and a white ex-soldier in a deserted amusement park on New Year’s Eve, 1989, Playland is unquestionably Fugard’s most overtly theatrical work since Master Harold more than a decade ago. (The playwright joked that the whimsical-garish-brooding carnival set by Susan Hilferty, and the masterfully coordinated lighting and sound designs by Dennis Parichy and David Budries, “will shock a lot of my critics in terms of production values.”)
And as his first major utterance since the release of Nelson Mandela, Playland may be Fugard’s most politically provocative play since the height of his anti-apartheid writings.
“As my country moves forward,” said the playwright in his precise, lilting tenor, “no amount of political blueprinting or committees can cross the real hurdles in the hearts and minds of men. That is: forgiveness. Coming to grips with the violence in our past, having the courage to say, ‘Yes, I did this–please forgive me.’ De Klerk keeps saying apartheid was misguided–that’s not good enough, man! To hell with misguided it was evil!”
Fugard’s voice has risen so that it is shaking with rage as he spits out the last word.
“We must acknowledge that evil, as Germany did with the Holocaust. Otherwise, we’ll have as our first inheritance only lies and hate and bitterness. ‘The New South Africa’ will be a hollow phrase.”
Fugard chose to continue Playland’s premiere in the spiritual hub of the Civil Rights Movement, immediately after the La Jolla run, out of a sense of poetic justice. In the welcoming words of Michael Lomax, a leading Atlanta politician and creator of the National Black Arts Festival; “Mr. Fugard, we have a kinship with you.” The playwright has corresponded for years with Atlanta friends, among them Nancy Kearns, a former 7 Stages dramaturg who wrote to him in South Africa “from out of the blue”; and actor-director Brenda Bynum, a Fugard specialist who met and befriended him at the 1987 Spoleto Festival USA production of his The Road to Mecca. The women’s letters stoked his fascination with Atlanta’s civil rights history and its place as “Mecca” for the black professional class.
“Even to this day, it seems to me Atlanta is a touchstone,” asserted Fugard, whose bristly beard and weathered face recall the tough-nut merchant seaman he was in his youth. “Perhaps the essential American drama is being played out here certainly the greatest experiment.”
It was at a Theatre Communications Group conference in 1990 that Fugard met Alliance artistic director Kenny Leon–a 36-year-old black man whose past performances in Fugard plays are part of Atlanta lore. They became instant friends and vowed to collaborate. Wagging his finger as they parted, Leon said, “Remember, we have an appointment”–mischievously using the playwright’s favorite word for his personal destinies.
Fugard has sensed he had an “appointment” to write a play about forgiveness and South Africa since the late ’70s.
“I was in New York, and I found myself in a bar late at night I was still drinking at this point–and I saw this man who seemed…to have a cloud over him. Just staring at his shot glass. I sat down near him, and he looked up and said, ‘I’m not a killer…I’m not a killer….” It became clear that I was talking to a Vietnam vet, and that something terrible I couldn’t grasp the detailshad happened in ‘Nam. Playland may have begun at that moment.”
The haunted vet became Gideon Le Roux, the bedraggled ex-soldier wandering into the carnival at nightfall, who fought the black SWAPO forces on the Namibian frontier. The image that torments him is one that Fugard came upon in a newspaper.
“There were two white soldiers standing in a truck full of black bodies, which they were dumping into a pit. Each of them had an arm as they had dragged this dead young man to the edge of the truck, and I thought, ‘My God it’s like two Roman Centurions taking an African Christ-figure down from the Cross.'”
By making Gideon one of those “centurions,” Fugard created a character so wracked with guilt that he drunkenly, desperately seeks out a black man to beg for redemption. By a strange fluke, it turns out to be a night watchman, Martinus Zoeloe, who also bears the invisible scar of “Number 6” (as in the 6th Commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Kill”) on his head. His compassion is tested to the extreme when the viciously taunting Gideon demands, “Kill me or forgive me.”
Leon, whose two-and-a-half-year tenure has been marked by some white flight among subscribers in spite of a balanced, eclectic repertoire, saw that Playland had “a message that Atlanta needs to hear–a message that doesn’t make whites feel guilty or make blacks angry.” As the director received freshly written pages of the play over the transatlantic fax last spring, America was reeling from the beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny; Atlanta’s street disturbances were among the worst in the country, second only to Los Angeles.
“It was uncanny to me,” Fugard avows, his eyes wide with amazement, “that my play was going straight into the two areas of the country where the pain had been the worst. I couldn’t imagine how it would be received.”
One of those who took part in peaceful demonstrations in Atlanta in spite of classmates’ involvement in the near-riots–was Saul Williams, a 20-year-old student at prestigious Morehouse College. In his acclaimed professional acting debut in My Children! My Africa!, he was on the far shore of the debate, playing an enraged student who defies his teacher’s courageous plea for peace.
“I met Mr. Fugard with mixed emotions. I didn’t know if such a play could be written by a white man. But I spoke to black South Africans who knew much of his work, and I was very impressed with the man himself. It was obvious the story came from the goodness of his soul.”
As much as the playwright appreciated newfound friends such as Williams, he was also profoundly affected by the angrier black students he addressed on local campuses and in the Alliance audience following preview performances. These exchanges, startlingly blunt even to the veteran of the apartheid wars, helped him “clarify some of my own thinking about the situation in South Africa.” Fugard quoted from his own Atlanta diary in an essay commissioned by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution: “A black South African female student in her early 20s. She stared at me unflinchingly out of what I sensed was a deep well of smouldering resentment. I hesitate to use the word hate but it might well have been as strong as that. When she eventually spoke, the question was for Kenny, sitting next to me.
“How can you be his friend after what his people did to the black people of South Africa?”
“Kenny spoke quietly. I will never forget his words.
“He is not a friend. He is my brother. If I do not forgive him, there is no hope for us in this world.”
Theater Emory’s shrewdly selected repertoire of early, lesser-known Fugard works–Hello and Goodbye (1965), Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act (1972) and the two-part readings of the adapted Notebooks: 1960-77–opened a window of personal history through which to appreciate the most recent plays. For instance, the troubled anti-hero of Hello, Johnnie Smits, is spiritually shackled to and (in a transformation prefiguring Sam Shepard) ultimately becomes his crippled father. Johnnie was described by Fugard as “that very timid side of me, always at war with the brave devil in me.” Notebooks contained the germinal idea of nearly every Fugard play. Foreshadowing Statements, based on the true case of a black principal and white librarian who were prosecuted under apartheid law for their secret love affair, the playwright recorded the eerily beautiful sight of two cobras first mating almost upright on a garden wall–then hacked to bits by the gardeners’ spades: “Six seconds in which men destroy something only God can make.”
Directed by Bynum with an intimate, Beckettian spareness that brought its streaks of poetry into sharp relief, Statements was the festival’s surprising gem. Its principals, Rob Cleveland and mary Lynn Owen, had just celebrated their first wedding anniversary.
“There had never been a way for us to express all the difficult things about our relationship, the uncomfortable vibrations we get from both whites and blacks,” said Owen. “Suddenly we had a place for all of that feeling to pour out, to come into focus.”
The actress’s sense of vulnerability was only heightened by the knowledge that the creator of her character would be sitting only a few feet away. But Fugard put her fears to rest by approaching her at a pot-luck dinner that 7 Stages threw for the playwright and Atlanta’s theatre community.
“Mr. Fugard said to me, ‘You’ll find I’m a wonderful audience. I eat up everything you give me.'”
One the amusement park setting of Playland:
“I came across an old entry from my notebooks about such a park–an icon of my youth! As hard-up as our family was, my mum always scraped together a few pennies so that we could have a few rides. That was my Christmas and my New Year’s. It was exclusively for whites in those days, but with a few matinees set aside for other races….Years later, I was driving through Karroo and I saw this sad little amusement park, encamped on the outskirts of a little town. It struck me what a visual setting it would be for a play, and what a metaphor–a place where people could go to play and to forget the harsh realities of their lives.”
On turning 60 and the “New” South Africa:
“Just when there was the temptation to start thinking, ‘Okay, it’s the home stretch now,’ my country throws the biggest drama of my entire life |the release of Nelson Mandela~ right in my face, and says, ‘No, man! Wait a minute! You’ve got another guess coming: we’ve only just started!’…The past was simple: I was ready to stand and be counted as a dissident voice. The future will be infinitely more complex–rich, and provocative. There was some disturbing talk recently of cultural commissars and the ‘correct thing’ for artists to say–it sounded a little like the old South Africa but from a different perspective. So I expect I’ll go on as before, the outsider.”
On writing, and a sense of place:
“When I sit down and face what I still lovingly call the Inquisition of Blank Paper, I feel I must be in South Africa, so that’s why I spend half the year there. That country gives me my stories, for I understand its codes of life down to my bones. I have a house in the Karroo, outside of a little village with only 10 or 12 permanent residents. I become a bachelor when I write–thank God Sheila |his wife of over 30 years~ understands this. I’m self-sufficient there, with my windmill and my orchards, in my island of serenity and silence. Playland was mostly written there.”
On spirituality and his themes:
“As I looked over what I had written in Playland, I was amazed to find more religious imagery–or let me say instead, spiritual concerns–than I had been aware of. This was certainly a departure for me…But as Gideon tells Martinus, ‘God’s forgotten us–it’s just you and me tonight.’ That’s the essential theme in all my writing. It’s what we do to each other, and with each other, one-on-one, on the…face…of…this…earth! That’s the arena. That’s our damnation, man, or our salvation.”