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Healing apartheid's wounds

A new South Africa presents subtler yet still complex issues for examination by playwrights and friends Athol Fugard and John Kani.

September 26, 2004|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

During the angry years of apartheid, Athol Fugard tried to avoid black immigration agents when he entered the U.S. "I'd look for a kind face, on a white immigration official," says the celebrated playwright, who is white. He was trying to prevent any trouble over his despised South African passport.

Fugard tells this story to his former colleague and fellow South African John Kani, who immediately reacts with his own passport story. During the '80s, the white South African government wouldn't give Kani, who is black, a passport. "I traveled with this thing that said 'Nationality Undetermined,' which I got from Pretoria. This thing was valid for only one year. And I always got it after three months, which means it was actually [valid for] nine months."

The two are swapping stories and insights from those years, as well as their hopes for the future, around a table in downtown Los Angeles, far from their homeland.

Kani is in L.A. to stage and star in his play "Nothing but the Truth," opening today at the Mark Taper Forum -- where Fugard most recently directed his own script, "Sorrows and Rejoicings," in 2002. Both plays address the post-apartheid tension between those who had fled the country and those who stayed.

The men first worked at the Taper nearly three decades ago. Fugard, Kani and Winston Ntshona collaborated on the sizzling anti-apartheid one-acts "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead" and "The Island," which ran there in 1975. These works also brought Kani and Ntshona a joint Tony Award for best actor.

Now, a decade after Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa amid the ruins of apartheid, Fugard has left his American home in Del Mar to talk with Kani face to face for the first time since 1997.

Greeting each other joyfully in a hallway, they immediately begin speaking in Afrikaans. Asked a few minutes later for a translation, Fugard says he told Kani, 61, he had "lost a lot of weight." But Kani's interpretation is different: "He told me, 'You've got a bit of fat on you.' He means that I look prosperous. It's a multilayered meaning."

Speaking now in English, Kani tells the 72-year-old Fugard that he looks the same.

"No change?" replies Fugard. "Now that's bad news. I've grown in wisdom, John. And you're looking obviously ready to run the country because you're looking like [South African President] Thabo Mbeki. The spitting image of Thabo."

Since arriving in L.A., Kani took in a performance of Fugard's latest, "Exits and Entrances," at the Fountain Theatre. He knew nothing about it in advance, he says. His capsule review of the play, which is set backstage in South African theaters in 1956 and 1961: "Such a tiny little story, such a huge heart." A character who corresponds to the young Fugard reminded him of the younger Fugard-based character in "Master Harold ... and the Boys."

"The air conditioner didn't work, the lights were bright, not a person moved," Kani says, describing the atmosphere at the Fountain. "A couple people were waving the program, but very gently so as not to miss a word. And those artists re-created my world."

Fugard then asks Kani about "Nothing but the Truth," which he plans to see soon. Kani begins by speaking about his younger brother Xolile, nicknamed Sweet Potato, who was shot to death when police opened fire on a crowd at a funeral in 1985.

Many similar incidents were examined during hearings by the country's "truth and reconciliation" commission in the '90s. But Kani's mother decided she had already heard enough about other incidents and chose not to attend the hearings, so Kani's brother's case was never reviewed to his satisfaction.

In 2000, Kani realized, "There was no closure in me. Every time I thought about my younger brother I got angry ... I got tight. And every time you look at what's going on in the country you ask yourself, 'Is that what he died for?' -- whether it was good or bad, there were always these questions. So I was going to write a letter to him and just file it somewhere. To say to him, 'I understand, I accept, and I'm proud that you gave your life so that I could vote and I could be what I am today.' I started this letter, which suddenly developed into a long, very angry [piece of] nonsense. And having done all this material, I thought 'OK, there's a play here.' "

As he wrote the play, however, his subject changed. The script is primarily about the father of a young man who was killed at a funeral under circumstances similar to the death of Kani's brother. This fictional father, Sipho, is a librarian who has spent most of his life resenting his own brother, a womanizing anti-apartheid exile who lived and finally died in England without ever returning to South Africa. Now, the brother's daughter has returned to South Africa with her father's remains. The play's characters are Sipho, his English-reared niece and his own daughter, who has been working as a translator during the "truth and reconciliation" hearings.

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