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WRITINGS ON THE WALL : Athol Fugard Sees a Way Past Apartheid, in 'Playland'

January 27, 1994|JAN HERMAN | Jan Herman covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition

Given the obsessive biblical references in "Playland," Athol Fugard's latest drama about the existential dilemma of his native South Africa, you'd think the author was a devout churchgoer.

But, as the renowned playwright made clear in a telephone interview last week from Princeton, N.J., he doesn't even consider himself a Christian.

"When people ask if I am, I tell them no," Fugard said, his bird-like voice lending the words a crisp and definitive ring. "I was brought up as one, but I am not any longer."

Nevertheless, he finds it difficult, if not impossible, to shake off his powerful Calvinist upbringing.

In fact, when it came to writing "Playland," which opens Friday in a revival on South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, he discovered the grip of his religious heritage was stronger than ever.

Fugard, who at 61 has long been South Africa's foremost dramatist, recalled that he "became conscious time and again of a Christian subtext" to his daily experience during the work's creation.

He cited as a prime example "the horrendous photograph" that triggered "Playland" in the first place.

"It was," Fugard explained, "a photograph of two white South African soldiers on the back of a truck lowering the body of a dead freedom fighter into a mass grave. I saw it on the front page of my newspaper in Port Elizabeth.

"The photographer had clicked the shutter at the precise moment when each of the soldiers had hold of an arm. It was a latter-day crucifixion image. Those were two Roman centurions taking Christ down from the cross.

"As I said, I am emphatically not a Christian. But from Day One to the very end (of writing this play) I was haunted by Christian imagery--in the accidents of my life and in my thoughts."

Letting his imagination roam, Fugard turned one of those white soldiers into "Playland's" Gideon le Roux, now in civilian life and looking to celebrate New Year's Eve, 1989, at a traveling amusement park camped near a small town in the Karoo, South Africa's arid tableland.

The drama has only one other character, apart from the offstage voice of a carnival barker, and that is the amusement park's black night watchman, Martinus Zoeloe, who casts a cold and cynical eye on the New Year's celebration.

The confrontation between Gideon and Martinus represents a dark night of the soul. Each is plagued by guilt--Gideon for the many killings he committed during South Africa's traumatic Border War against the guerrilla forces of now-independent Namibia and Martinus for killing the white man who raped his wife.

"Both of these men are ghosts haunted by murder," Fugard reflected. "But I think the end of the play suggests they have the possibility of returning to life."

A prolific writer who speaks of having "appointments" with his plays, Fugard considers this 1992 stage work an outgrowth of "My Children! My Africa!"

That 1989 drama, which he has come to regard "quite simply as my favorite," was an emotionally wrenching meditation on the riots that swept the black townships of South Africa during the mid-'80s.

Its doomed central figure, the anguished black schoolmaster Mr. M., held out the hope that the youth of the country--both black and white--might one day save their society from the racist curse of apartheid.

But even with its sweet faith in reason and its moving plea for humanity ("The beautiful Mr. M. was an intellectual self-portrait," Fugard says), "My Children! My Africa!" still embodied what could only be called hope for a distant future.

"Playland," Fugard's 19th drama in 33 years, has updated his sense of events and brought him closer to the sort of prescription he believes is necessary for justice without violence to prevail in South Africa.

"I needed to write this one to prepare myself for the huge challenge we are facing now that apartheid is being dismantled," said Fugard, who directed "Playland's" 1992 world premiere in Johannesburg as well as the La Jolla Playhouse's American premiere, also that year, in San Diego. "It is a step forward in my evolution as a writer."

"A couple of years before the release of Nelson Mandela (in 1990), it became obvious to any informed observer of the South African scene that the government had started to read the writing on the wall. A lot of people in power were realizing they could not hang on to white minority rule indefinitely, and that we were headed for big change.

"To the extent that I became aware of this, I couldn't stop thinking, 'All right, so things are going to change. But in what way? Where are we going to go? What will change mean? How will we facilitate it?' And it became clear to me that white South Africans would have to acknowledge responsibility for those 40 years of apartheid and what they did to the black people of South Africa.

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