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White South African's Apartheid Indictment

November 16, 1986|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

To the United States and Western Europe, South Africa has become a political catch phrase, like Jane Fonda or "law and order" or "secular humanism." But behind the symbol is a condition that only the theater, or literature, or an expression that attempts the totality of existence, can try to encompass. For example: While it's generally known that there's serious political division within the black South African community, it's less well known that there's serious division among the whites as well. There are whites, for example, who don't recognize apartheid as a form of political legitimacy but who do see it as having become an awful psychological reality, a tragic inheritance of fear.

Paul Van Zyl is one of them. Van Zyl was born, raised and educated in South Africa and started his own theater ("a committed theater, which meant the police could come in and confiscate our equipment") in the Hillbrow section of Johannesburg, one of the more unofficially liberated zones of the city. He came to the United States under a director's fellowship at the American Film Institute in 1984, and elected to stay in Los Angeles. His most recent play, "Stillborn," opens at the Skylight Theater Saturday.

"Stillborn" was written in collaboration with another South African, Andrew Buckland. Van Zyl described it: "In South Africa, conscription is mandatory for whites beginning at the age of 17, and after the initial service period is over you remain a reservist, having to attend regular meetings until the age of 65. South Africa has evolved from a police state to a military state. In this play, you meet a returning regular from the border wars, very like a Vietnam vet, who tries to tell his young friend and a new young recruit what it's like and what it's worth.

"A lot of whites don't want to press South Africa's war against its black borders. That's what this play is about. White South African society has become apathetic; now the young soldiers have inherited the ideals of an older generation that died comfortably in its bed, and the implications are horrible. Under apartheid, everyone's dignity and self-respect is diminished. There's a Xhosa phrase, umntu mgumntu nganbantu, which means 'a person is a person through people.' One gains self-affirmation through being with other people. The system of white supremacy, and its enforced isolation, only leads to greater alienation."

It's easier to look for inequities abroad than at home. On an infinitely smaller scale than the suffering in South Africa, it remains a fact that, in the American theater establishment, such a small number of playwrights make a living at writing plays that the majority of playwrights have less of a steady income to look forward to than the shoeshine man at your local car wash.

Louis La Russo has been one of our more prolific playwrights over the past few years, bringing us, among other works, "Lamppost Reunion," "Wheelbarrow Closers" (which played Broadway in 1976), "Marlon Brando Sat Here" and "Vesper's Eve," which played to sold-out audiences throughout its run at the Cast two years ago. La Russo is back with yet another view of life in his native Hoboken in "Stoop Life," which opens at the Cast today.

"I like to keep my plays in the neighborhood," La Russo said in his unmistakeable New Jersey accent. "This one deals with a guy I knew as a kid who was a bus boy in his '50s. No one knew whether he was retarded or just slow. A lot of guys from Hoboken, because Frank Sinatra made it from there, think 'If he could do it, why can't I?' I've made him a street cleaner.

"By some strange quirk, a beat-up stripper who works out of the Hudson Burlesque in Union City meets up with him and believes in him. She's kind of the property of Marco, an underworld kingpin, so it can't get very far. Still, they talk on the stoop every night. His name is Jerry, hers is Tootsie. Tommy Bandino, his brother, is in the play. So is Esther Malzone, her son Goo Goo and his friend Bonesy. The same characters tend to show up in my plays."

When wished success with his new project, La Russo, who now works as a screenwriter, confessed: "I'm sad to say that, no matter what happens with the play, it won't make a difference in my life. Nobody cares about the playwright today." La Russo's tone was beyond bitterness. It was resigned.

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