In a pivotal scene in Athol Fugard’s powerful 1989 play, My Children! My Africa!, a black schoolteacher asks a rebellious student to choose between two objects of equal
weight: a rock symbolizing revolutionary violence and a treasured English dictionary representing civilized discourse. With contemporary South Africa similarly poised to decide its fate,
the dilemma seems even more urgent now than when the play was written. In Toronto recently to direct the Canadian première of My Children! My Africa!—one of the highlights of the biennial du Maurier Ltd. World Stage theatre festival, which ends on June 16—Fugard said that the prospects for peaceful change appear brighter than at any time in his 30-year battle of words against apartheid. Declared the playwright: “I have witnessed the most extraordinary drama in the history of my country. The rate of change is not as great as the liberalization of Eastern Europe, but I am convinced it will go the same way. It is irreversible.”
A kindly, animated man with blazing eyes, a bristling beard and a deeply furrowed face, Fugard, 58, is perhaps South Africa’s most renowned literary figure, and its most eloquent anti-apartheid crusader abroad. In rehearsal with his actors and in private conversation, he radiates a youthful lack of pretence and a passionate concern about politics. The drama of apartheid has inspired him to create many stirring protest plays, notably The Blood Knot, Sizwe Banzi is Dead (co-authored with John Kani) and A Lesson from Aloes.
But, in My Children! My Africa!, he has written what he considers to be his “most outspoken and committed play.” Inspired by a 1984 newspaper story about a black teacher suspected of being a police informer and murdered by an angry mob in Port Elizabeth, Fugard has produced a work that reaffirms his belief in the transfiguring power of communication. “There were moments when the situation made me feel so angry, I thought I would make more of a contribution making bombs than writing plays,” he recalled.
Indeed, with leftist critics arguing that a nonviolent white playwright could play no part in the black struggle for freedom, Fugard retreated for a time from the political arena. He wrote and directed two highly acclaimed plays, the autobiographical Master Harold and the Boys (1981) and the poetic The Road to Mecca (1984), conquered a long-standing addiction to alcohol and dabbled in an international film career with small parts in Gandhi and The Killing Fields. He earns most of his income acting and directing abroad, and spends part of the year in New York City, close to where his only daughter, Lisa, a 28-year-old actress, lives. “I lead a very selfish life,” he said.
Yet he never bowed to pressure to leave South Africa. With his wife of 33 years, Sheila, whose Buddhist faith he considers a strengthening influence, he maintains homes in southeastern Port Elizabeth and in the nearby Karoo, a desert-like region where he grew up, and to which he returns for inspiration. Fugard describes himself as “a regional writer,” adding: “When I stand on the street comer in Port Elizabeth and watch the crowd flow by—the old black lady carrying her heavy shopping bag, the rich bitch in her Mercedes-Benz—I know where they are coming from and where they are going to. If I were to cut myself off from the world, I know intimately I would die as a writer.”
Fugard traces the roots of his liberalism to
his boyhood. From his father, Harold, a severe alcoholic of British descent, he inherited a gift for storytelling, but he acquired his values from his Afrikaner mother, Elizabeth. A strong peasant woman who ran a tearoom to support the family, she kept pace with her son’s awakening sense of social injustice. “Her sense of anger and outrage grew as mine did, and she ended up a monument of liberal decency,” he recalled. Another powerful influence was the family’s black servant, to whom he paid tribute in his play Master Harold. In a climactic scene drawn from Fugard’s own life, the young Harold spits in the face of the servant, a memory that the playwright says still shames him. “To have been in the presence of that extraordinary black man who, instead of beating me to a pulp, grieved for the state of my soul and forgave me—that was an important lesson,” he said.
As violence in South Africa escalated during the 1980s, Fugard decided it was time to proclaim that lesson of tolerance and mutual respect once again. My Children! My Africans very much a family affair, featuring Lisa Fugard and her godfather, Kani, a black actor who won a 1974 Tony Award in New York for his performance in SizweBanzi. The new play, set in 1984, is unabashedly didactic. It ends on an optimistic note, with the black student rejecting mob violence and heading north to join the African National Congress, while his white friend, Isabel (Lisa Fugard), pledges to devote her life to the anti-apartheid cause. Fugard is already planning a sequel. The playwright says he believes more than ever that inter-racial theatre can combat the hate-filled rhetoric of radicals on both the left and the right. “One thing any tyranny tries to do is put chains on the hearts and minds of its citizens,” he said. “If I see any role for myself, it is in trying to break those shackles.”
The play’s enthusiastic reception in South Africa suggests that the public, at least the theatregoing part of it, is on his side. During a recent six-week tour of the black townships, local audiences packed into makeshift theatres, many people carrying their own chairs, in open defiance of government curfews. “What we saw was an extraordinary degree of willingness to listen, even after decades of the evil of apartheid,” said Fugard. “Look at Nelson Mandela—27 years of his life wasted rotting behind bars and he comes out prepared to forgive and negotiate. He is symbolic of his people.” Although mindful of the dangers posed by white and black extremists within South Africa, Fugard holds fast to the humanist faith that informs his life and art. Before leaving a Toronto rehearsal last week for his daily jog, he took a break from his punishing schedule to dream aloud. “Wouldn’t it be ironic if South Africa could teach the world something about harmony?” he said. “It could happen, you know. The greatest sinners have become the greatest saints.” Whatever the outcome, Fugard himself is proof that the most repressive governments often give birth to the greatest writers.
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