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In a Brave New World

Apartheid's collapse hasn't slowed Athol Fugard. The South African playwright still has stories to tell--and with 'Valley Song' he cuts out the middleman, acting and directing himself.

March 09, 1997|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The first question people want to ask Athol Fugard these days is, "So, Mr. Fugard, what are you going to write about now?"

The playwright, who is synonymous in the theater with South Africa and its once moldering apartheid state, has watched happily in recent years as the white supremacist government that regarded him as a subversive advocate for the country's black majority has given way to democracy and the presidency of Nelson Mandela. But the popular notion that this political consummation has pulled the premise out from under Fugard's work is more than a little annoying to a writer who does not strike you as easily annoyed--who, in fact, exhibits in person exceeding good cheer for someone so often compared to Samuel Beckett.

Yet it is with this question, appropriate or not, hanging in the air that Fugard has arrived in Los Angeles to work at the Mark Taper Forum for the first time, bringing with him his newest play, a piece for two actors called "Valley Song," which he is directing and starring in, along with Lisa Gay Hamilton. The show opens Thursday.

"I think it's a very naive question because firstly it betrays a total lack of insight into the very complex process which leads eventually to the writing of something," he said one day after getting to town. He was dressed in a khaki shirt, checked trousers and well-worn running shoes as he sat forward alertly on a couch in a Taper office, his famously expressive hands marking the air in front of his face. "You don't wake up, having written one play and look around and say, 'All right, so what's it going to be about now?' In my case, every play has been dormant in me for years until it has finally surfaced, before the right moment has come for it to float to the top."

Perhaps it's also worth noting that Fugard (he pronounces his name "Fewgard") is 65, and, considering his estimable output for more than three decades, might be entitled to retire with full dramatic honors now that the segregated society he portrayed in so many of his minimalist landscapes has at last set about correcting its injustice. When he wrote and acted in "The Blood Knot" in his native Port Elizabeth in 1963, it was the first time a black man and a white man had ever been onstage together in South Africa. Later, plays like "Boesman and Lena," "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead," "A Lesson From Aloes" and "Master Harold . . . and the Boys" continued to send out bleak and unsettling pictures of his homeland to theater audiences around the world, while they held up a mirror to his countrymen.

Although he never joined the ANC, Mandela's African National Congress party (as did some radical whites), Fugard was regarded as sufficiently dangerous by the government that he was denied a passport from 1965 to 1971. Instead, he was offered a one-way visa out.

But he has never wanted to live any place else. South Africa and the culturally remote manufacturing town of Port Elizabeth, where he has lived since his boyhood (except for youthful sojourns to Cape Town and London), are too much a part of who he is, he says. On a recent visit to London, the question occurred to him anew while dining in wonderful restaurants and visiting favorite museums. "I thought, 'Why do I live in that Godforsaken . . . ?' But I know why. Because I get the work done. Being a sophisticated, civilized human being--that's just not for me. I'm a coarse colonial, it's as simple as that. I know what I am."

Perhaps it is easy enough to say this when your plays have won a mantle full of theater awards and you have been mentioned as a candidate for a Nobel Prize.

In "Valley Song" Fugard is back in his familiar Karoo province again, this time onstage himself portraying two characters: the first, an aging desert tenant farmer named Buks--a "colored man," as the South African vernacular describes anyone of mixed racial parentage; the second, a man identified as "the author," who is both ethereally omniscient and a real-life white intruder threatening to buy the farm out from under Buks and his way of life.

Most of the 95-minute drama is a melancholy dialogue between Buks and his 17-year-old granddaughter Veronica (Hamilton), who has been his housekeeper and only companion for years but is also a fledgling singer harboring dreams of attaining pop stardom in Johannesburg. Buks must reckon with the terrible likelihood of her eventual departure.

Considered something of an allegory representing the hopeful but disruptive change now gripping South Africa, "Valley Song" was very much a critical hit when it opened off-Broadway in 1995 at the Manhattan Theater Club. Since then Fugard and Hamilton have taken the play around the world, though they have been away from it for six months. Los Angeles and then Washington, D.C., are their last two stops, "a sort of lap of honor, as it were," the playwright said, "before we leave it and go on to other work." (The play was done last season at the La Jolla Playhouse, without Fugard's involvement.)

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