Apartheid's over, but Fugard isn't

The South African playwright feared he might become redundant when his country's politics changed, but that hasn't happened.


February 10, 2002|By Judy van der Walt | Judy van der Walt,Special to the Sun

CAPE TOWN, S. Africa -- It is a rainy Tuesday morning in Cape Town, and the Baxter Theatre is cold and cavernous. A man mops away the previous night's debris, and the floor shines damply. In a windowless room, stark in its flat neon lighting, old theater posters jostle each other on a wall. Cups are set out on a table, and the kettle is on.

Enter Athol Fugard, once proclaimed the greatest active English-language playwright by Time magazine. Just as the sun never set on the old British empire, it might never set on Fugard's work; it's seemingly possible to see him on stage somewhere on any given day. His 1973 play, The Island, is enjoying a revival, having completed a stay at the Kennedy Center in December, and running now through mid-April in London's West End. And his newest play, Sorrow & Rejoicings, currently is in previews in New York starring John Glover, Judith Light and Charlayne Woodard. Among English-language playwrights, only Shakespeare is performed more frequently than Fugard.

He doesn't look it. There's no entourage, not a shred of self- importance. He wears a funny little round hat -- presumably because of the rain -- a jacket and track-suit pants with elasticized ankles. His hair and beard are completely gray and he is slightly stooped, but he bounds into the room with an energy that belies his 70 years and grabs a cup of instant coffee. He stirs it with the earpiece of his spectacles.

Profound humility

Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona created The Island in the dark ages of apartheid South Africa, circa 1973. More than any other artwork to emerge from that country, the play's raw emotions, power and compassion focused international attention on apartheid. Moreover, it helped make the island of the play's title -- Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other resistance leaders were incarcerated -- the symbol of the struggle for democracy.

And yet, Fugard never has even set foot on Robben Island. On July 2, 1973, on the afternoon before the world premier of The Island, he was among a group of artists standing at a window in the Space Theatre in Cape Town.

"That was the one window from which you could see Robben Island," he said.

"And it was one of those moments when you feel truly humbled, because we realized this wasn't an occasion -- as artists presenting new work -- for any conceit or vanity. It was instead an occasion for the profoundest humility, because we were going to try to bear witness, honest witness, to what that island meant for fellow South Africans.

"That's my memory of Robben Island, and that's the one I want to take with me to my grave. I'm not interested in being a tourist and looking at the cell in which [resistance leaders] Govan Mbeki or Walter Sisulu or Nelson himself spent so many years of their life. No, thank you. I have a memory of Robben Island. I have seen it. I'll rest with that one."

In a similar vein, Fugard admits that he's "one of the few South Africans" who never met Mandela after he was freed. "He must surely know how indebted I am, as a South African with a conscience, to what he has done," Fugard says. "He is absolutely magnificent. But I'm terribly frightened, if I met him, I would see hairs growing out of his nose and ears and realize, oh my God, he's just an ordinary human being."

After all, Fugard has firsthand experience of how demoralizing it can be when a cherished dream finally comes true.

In 1994, South Africa became a democracy, and it plunged Fugard into a crisis. He stumbled across the South African landscape, a little lost, unsure of his relevance and depressed that he might have lost his purpose as a human being. What was there left for him to write about?

"After the democratic transition, I had a sense that I have outlived my time and become redundant, because I was a voice that plugged into the energy and the conflicts of the old South Africa," he says. "I can't deny that. Those conflicts -- those rights and wrongs, do's and don'ts -- were a very energizing factor in my writing."

Then he realized he was in danger of forgetting his essential identity.

"I told myself: 'Listen, you were never a political writer, you were never a politician, not for one moment in your life were you ever a member of any political party. What you are, essentially, is a storyteller. And if you think there are no stories to tell in the new South Africa, you're making a bloody big mistake.' "

Coming home

Fugard's head is crammed with stories that he cuts out of South African newspapers. (He also reads the newspapers every day on the Internet when he's out of the country.)

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