Coming Home

by Athol Fugard
directed by Blanka Zizka
October 14, 2009November 15, 2009

From Tainted Promise

In presenting one woman’s story of determined hopefulness, Athol Fugard’s “Coming Home” paints a bitterweet portrait of post-apartheid South Africa.

For Patrice Johnson, her experience of Veronica Jonkers can be summed up in four words.

“Strength, strength, strength, strength.”

The actor, who is portraying the role of a young South African woman returning to her hometown after her big-city dreams of becoming a cabaret singer have been dashed in Athol Fugard’s most recent play, “Coming Home,” was in rehearsal one day when she jotted down the words.

Fugard first introduced audiences to Veronica in 1995’s “Valley Song” as an optimistic teen who leaves her grandfather’s quiet farm behind for a brighter future in Cape Town. “Coming Home,” which opens the new season at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia Wednesday, takes place some 10 years later. When Veronica returns to the abandoned shack where she was raised by her grandfather in the country’s barren Karoo region, it is with a young child and a lamentable story of struggle and disappointment. She also harbors an agonizing secret: She has contracted HIV.  

Yet despite the sad, bitter and fearful moments that her character understandably experiences, Johnson, who is making her Philadelphia debut in her first Fugard role, marvels at Veronica’s resilience.

“The lattice of our life is so complex, and in order to keep moving, I think my character has got to lean upon her strength,” says the New Yorker whose Broadway credits include “The Crucible” and “Racing Demon.” “Politically, the playwright is saying something about our whole world; there’s a lot he’s saying, but for me, I rely on (conveying) a strength of character and a strength of spirit.”

It’s a testament to the South African dramatist, known for his incisive yet affecting exploration of his country’s lacerating past, that “Coming Home” is a work of patent political censure that proves riveting not in its condemnation of government policy but in the human face that he puts on a harrowing and contemporary issue. Veronica’s story exemplifies that of the thousands who failed to receive the necessary antiretroviral drugs from an administration that persisted in first denying the reality of AIDS and then insisting that it could be cured naturally with a remedy of herbs and bananas. Such negligent policies, as well as the perpetuation of myths such as a virgin’s ability to cure those infected with the virus, resulted in thousands of preventable deaths and a population now ravaged by the disease.

“I think what’s really staggering, what I really love about this piece is Athol is talking about something that has bugged him, which should be bugging the world, which is the plight of the South African people with the HIV virus,” says Johnson. “Close to a quarter of the South African population has AIDS and HIV. It’s heartbreaking.

“Yet what (Fugard) has done as a playwright and as a storyteller is to deal with that in such intricate, fine, delicate needlework through this story of a woman who’s contracted the disease who’s coming home.

“I just love that, the story is first. A lot of times, people don’t want to be hit over the head with the facts, but if you get them to care about the people and the story and to laugh, then they go out and do the research and become active and more politically and socially aware.”

For director Blanka Zizka, Fugard’s connection to his characters has always been among his most compelling traits as a writer.

“He writes very dramatic stories but in those dramatic moments, his knowledge of the characters and the circumstances that they are living in is very deep and beautifully expressed in both a very naturalistic and poetic language,” she says. “Writing dramas, you can come up with a plot very easily. But to make characters come alive is very difficult, and he is able to explore characters with a knowledge that is mind-boggling.”

Co-artistic director at the Wilma for the last 28 years, the Czechoslovakian native has had the opportunity to direct three of the theater’s previous productions of Fugard’s works: “Statements After An Arrest Under the Immortality Act,” “Playland” and “My Children! My Africa!” (“The Road to Mecca,” another play in the Fugard canon, was directed by Kent Paul.) Having worked in an underground theater that was shut down in Czechoslovakia, she says that, though it was more dangerous for Fugard to write and stage his plays in South Africa, the two share a similar background.

“For both of us, theater was a way of living, a way of expressing our understanding of morality and how we can go on. It was kind of an expression of our life values,” says Zizka.

The Wilma’s production of “Coming Home,” which also stars Lou Ferguson as the ghost of Veronica’s late grandfather, Nyambi Nyambi as the childhood friend whom she turns to for support and Elijah Felder and Antonio J. Dandridge as her son at age 5 and 9, respectively, is only the play’s third since its world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., earlier this year.

Zizka, who had the opportunity to meet Fugard when he visited the Wilma during the production of “Statements After An Arrest” in 1988, says the play contrasts the more optimistic South Africa of “Valley Song” — which Fugard wrote a year after Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994 — with a country thrust into the bitter realities of a fading post-apartheid dream.

“With ‘Valley Song,’ Athol gives (Veronica) the possibility to dream and follow her dream because we’re now in a new democracy. This play, ‘Coming Home,’ is now from the most recent South Africa, after Nelson Mandela, and what followed was a huge betrayal on the part of the government, so Athol had to come back to that subject, to that common theme of how once again the laws and bureaucratic decisions of the government are disconnected from what the people and the masses are going through,” she says.

Yet amid such dire circumstances, Fugard maintains a positive belief in humanity, and in particular the ability of those on the periphery of society to transform or transcend their circumstances through remarkable self-reliance. Veronica’s determination to ensure a better future for her son, despite her declining health over the course of the play, is especially moving.

“In the United States, we are so narcissistic and individualistic, and here all the characters are … thinking outside of themselves, thinking about supporting something bigger than themselves. There is an enormous sense of generosity in the play, in putting all this energy into supporting a new young life, which is this little boy, and that’s so strongly spiritual and life-affirming,” says Zizka. “That generosity is really, really beautiful and I think it’s a great, great piece for the times we’re living in right now.”

“Coming Home” continues in previews through Tueday, then opens Wednesday and runs through Nov. 15 at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce streets, Philadelphia. Tickets: $36 to $65. Information: 215-546-7824; www.wilmatheater.org. Two symposiums, “Here, There and Everywhere: Global Health Concerns Gone Viral” and “Tough Reality: Perspectives on a Post-apartheid South Africa,” will be held at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 25 and Nov. 8, respectively.