Interview with Playwright Athol Fugard
In August, Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback was lucky enough to arrange a phone interview with Athol Fugard to talk about his new play, Coming Home, which opens the Wilma season. Although he is best known for his plays chronicling the pernicious effects of apartheid on his native South Africa, Fugard has remained active as a playwright: he has written at least six plays since the Wilma produced My Children! My Africa! in 2007.
Coming Home to New Bethesda
Coming Home is unique among Fugard’s plays as a sequel to an earlier play. Valley Song was the first play Fugard wrote after Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress party was voted into office, replacing the white apartheid government, and Valley Song reflects the mood of the time. “It was a moment of incredible euphoria in South Africa with great hope for the future, and I was not immune to that,” Fugard says. “I thought, you know, ‘My God, I’m going to actually see it happen in my lifetime’.”
Valley Song is perhaps Fugard’s most wholeheartedly optimistic work. The play is set in New Bethesda, a small town where Fugard owns a home, “no more than about 40 to 50 miles from the village where I was born.” Since buying the house, Fugard has set several of his plays in New Bethesda, beginning with The Road to Mecca, nearly 25 years ago.
Fugard wrote himself into Valley Song as The Author, and played the role in early productions. The other characters bear the names of real people from New Bethesda; One of these was Oupa (“Grandpa”), the caretaker on Fugard’s property. “He was my first and my closest friend in New Bethesda. When I bought my first property there, I inherited Oupa! Because he had been looking after that land and planting on it and harvesting the fruit and the vegetables for years, years, years before I even put my eyes, set my eyes on it. And…I had to come to terms with him. In a kind of a way I always felt that as long as he was alive that land would be his as much as it would be mine.”
The other character is Veronica, Oupa’s granddaughter, who he’s raised since she was a child. She was the real inspiration for the play. “Veronica was a real young girl who I knew and who dreamt about going to the city and I realized she could be an embodiment of the hope that we all had. And so Valley Song is about that. Valley Song is about the fact that the world, our world had changed, taken a dramatic one hundred and eighty degree turn in its identity and was going to try and forge a new identity for itself. For me, Veronica was an embodiment of that belief that the miracle had happened” and his belief that “we would be able to hold on to it and be bold and go forward.” Valley Song was an international hit: “it was a beautiful experience watching audiences respond to that hope.”
So why did Fugard decide to re-visit Veronica and Oupa more than a decade later? “Democracies have a lot to learn as we discovered,” he says. “it did definitely make strong strides towards being the democracy we had dreamt of but with time a debit side to the balance sheet began to emerge.”
Like her namesake, the real Veronica left New Bethesda for the city, hoping to become a singer. Fugard doesn’t know what happened to her, but she and Oupa stuck with him as symbols of those early, euphoric days. “I made people hope with Valley Song. And it bothered me that, in terms of my country, that message of hope—unconditional hope—was no longer valid. So to get the record straight I had to bring Veronica back to the village and write a play called Coming Home.”
Many of the challenges facing South Africa are well-known: in Fugard’s words, they “ranged from corruption in high places, outbursts of xenophobia in terms of black people from other parts of Africa who came into our country hoping to find places for themselves in the sun, an incredibly misguided foreign policy…But worst of all, worst of all, an AIDS epidemic that we could’ve got under control but because of the monumental stupidity of our then-Prime Minister, Thabo Mbeki. AIDS turned into a disaster every bit as big as anything that apartheid had served up in the years of its oppression.”
Despite this, Fugard retains hope for his native country. “In spite of all that, our fledgling democracy is still standing on two, albeit wobbly, legs, but standing.” He is guardedly optimistic about the new presidency of Jacob Zuma. [For a thorough account of South Africa’s last fifteen years, read Alec Russell’s Bring Me My Machine Gun.]
Fugard spends most of his time now in Southern California, but reads “about eight South African newspapers in English and Afrikaans” on his computer every day. And he still returns every winter (which, of course, is summer in South Africa) to his house in New Bethesda. He becomes rhapsodic when speaking of New Bethesda and the Karoo, the surrounding desert area in which so many of his plays are set. “I was born in the Karoo and my mother was Afrikaans. And the Karoo…” He pauses. “She had an enormous, monumental, total influence on my life, in making me the man I am. Whatever sort of man that is. The best of me comes from my mother.” He laughs. “I just feel it’s home to me. I love the fact that those vast open spaces makes man look very small. It’s a humbling experience living in the Karoo.” He’s drawn to its people, white and black. “If I were asked, I’d say the one quality that defines the people of New Bethesda is piety. They just have a sense that the world is bigger than themselves and their egos and their little wants and greeds and what have you. They’re in church every Sunday – not that I ever go to church on Sunday. But they do. It’s a spiritual world. ” He was delighted to be reminded that New Bethesda’s name has biblical roots, as a place where one can return to be healed (as Tony Kushner points out in the final scene of Angels in America), laughing as he reminds me that he didn’t name the town.
Coming Home to the Wilma
Fugard is also excited to have his work on the Wilma stage again. His relationship with the theater goes back more than twenty years, beginning with the Wilma’s production of Statements Following an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, at the old Sansom Street theater. Fugard saw that production. The theater “so reminded me of my beginnings in South Africa - humble but honest. Most important of all, though, is that I fell in love with Blanka's vision for her theater. Her understanding that good theater has to both educate and entertain the minds and hearts of her audience, is exactly what I strive for in my writing.”