Long Wharf Theatre
7:22 am
Thu March 27, 2014

At 81, Playwright Athol Fugard Looks Back On Aging And Apartheid

Originally published on Mon March 31, 2014 12:18 pm

Under apartheid, trying to make an artistic political statement was difficult — artists were subject to scrutiny and even arrest. On the other hand, making a political statement was easy: All one had to do was put black and white actors on a stage together.

That's exactly what South African playwright Athol Fugard did back in 1961 with his breakout play Blood Knot. His newest play, The Shadow of the Hummingbird, is now onstage at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.

Fugard has often acted in his own works, and Hummingbird puts him back on stage. At 81, he's not afraid to joke about his age; he plays an old man, talking with his grandson — and searching for his glasses.

When Fugard sat down with NPR's Renee Montagne, their conversation went back decades, to a time when he first started scribbling down his thoughts. A bookshelf filled with Fugard's notebooks — diaries of sorts — is central to the play.

"The notebooks were there even before I wrote the first of my plays," Fugard says. "Quite frankly, my apprenticeship was a period during which I wrote a couple of plays imitating the great American masters like Williams and O'Neill."

Until, that is, the young Fugard wrote a story only he could tell, as a South African, on the way to becoming his own country's version of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. He carried on their fascination with people on the edge. In his work, South African characters locked in an intimate embrace, with every action leading inexorably toward an explosion.

"I think it is under the pressure of desperation that extraordinary things can happen in a human life," Fugard says. "And if ever there was a country oversupplied with desperation, it was South Africa in that time."

Since apartheid, audiences everywhere have experienced Fugard's plays as political and social dramas. But he says the heart of his work is the dynamic of family. The racially charged Blood Knot is about two brothers, one black and one light-skinned enough to enjoy the privileges of being white. It's a character Fugard himself originated.

"At that time, that would have been a very dangerous play to write and put on. It cost me my passport," he says. "I had to make a choice between leaving the country permanently — on what was called an exit permit — or staying on in a world in which I would not be able to leave of my own free will. ... They gave me back my passport, but by that time, I had forged my voice, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life as a writer."

Fugard had to be creative to work with black actors under apartheid. "Men had to have legal status that the government would recognize for being in a white area," he says. So when questioned, he would say he was employing the actors as chauffeurs or gardeners.

He hasn't had to employ such tricks since the end of apartheid in 1994. Today, Fugard says he is reckoning more with himself than with his country. So in this play, he reads his personal diaries, his notebooks, on stage:

It is Monday, the 15th, July, 2013. I was about to leave my chair, urgent matters needed my attention, and then a butterfly landed on a wall, and folded its wings in prayer. Also this morning, the shadow of a hummingbird on the floor at my feet, a perfect outline.

It's a two-character play: the grandfather, Oupa, and the young grandson who adores him, Boba. The grandfather has led an overly intellectual life, with a passion for listing and categorizing birds he's spotted. But on this day, he shares a story with Boba about seeing birds in a way that moved him spiritually. That moment gets to the heart of the play — a grandfather urging his grandson to keep hold of his innocence.

"In the course of acquiring all this so-called knowledge, I've lost something. I've lost contact with something that I had," Fugard says. "I wonder about myself now. I haven't shouted 'Hallelujah!' for a long time, you know? Can I do it once more? I would like to believe that."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

South African playwright Athol Fugard's most important plays were written during apartheid. On one hand, it was hard to make a political statement at that time. It often meant scrutiny and even arrest from the apartheid government. But in another sense, it was easy to make a political statement then. All one had to do was put black and white actors on a stage together. Athol Fugard did just that in 1961 with his breakout play "Blood Knot." Now, his newest play is on stage at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. Our colleague Renee Montagne spent a day there during rehearsals.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: The play is called "The Shadow of the Hummingbird." Athol Fugard has often acted in his own works. He's back on stage, this time most likely for the last time, and he's not afraid to joke about his age.

ATHOL FUGARD: Spectacles, spectacles, where are my bloody eyes?

MONTAGNE: That's Fugard, playing an old man searching for his glasses. When we sat down, our conversation took us back decades, to a time when Fugard first started scribbling down his thoughts, his private musings that are now a key element of this play. The set involves a bookcase. In the course of the play, you go to that bookshelf, and we discover that it's filled with notebooks, diaries of sorts. Now, this is real to you, as a writer, your notebooks.

FUGARD: Oh, yes, absolutely. The notebooks were there, even before I wrote the first of my plays. Quite frankly, my apprenticeship was a period during which I wrote a couple of plays imitating the great American masters, like Williams and O'Neill.

MONTAGNE: Until, that is, the young Fugard wrote a story only he could tell as a South African, on the way to becoming his own country's version of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. He carried on their fascination with people on the edge: in his work, South African characters locked in an intimate embrace, with every action leading inexorably towards an explosion.

FUGARD: Desperate people. Because I think it is under the pressure of desperation that extraordinary things can happen in a human life. You know, and if ever there was a country oversupplied with desperation, it was South Africa in that time.

MONTAGNE: Since apartheid, audiences everywhere have experienced Fugard's plays as political and social dramas. In fact, he says that the heart of his work is the dynamic of family. That would include the play that made his famous, the racially charged "Blood Knot." It's about two brothers, one black, and one light enough to enjoy the privileges of being white, a character Fugard himself originated. At that time, that would have been a very dangerous play to write and put on.

FUGARD: It cost me my passport.

MONTAGNE: You couldn't leave the country.

FUGARD: Correct. When the government took my passport away...

MONTAGNE: In 1967.

FUGARD: Yeah, that's right. And I had to make a choice between leaving the country permanently, on what was called an exit permit, or staying on in a world in which I would not be able to leave of my own free will. And I think that saved me. They gave me back my passport, but by that time, I had forged my voice, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life as a writer.

MONTAGNE: In those early days, there was quite a trick to presenting anything - you know, like, it was illegal to put a black actor and white actor on stage, two actors who were huge talents: John Kani and Winston Ntshona. There was a point early on in which you had to pretend that they were working for you.

FUGARD: Oh yes, absolutely, because...

MONTAGNE: (unintelligible)

FUGARD: ...you know, a black man had to have legal status that the government would recognize for being in a white area. And so I forget who was my chauffeur of the car which I didn't have, or who was the gardener. I didn't have a garden. One learned a few tricks, you know.

MONTAGNE: Tricks he has not needed to employ since the end of white rule 20 years ago, with the election of Nelson Mandela. Now, at 81, Athol Fugard says he is reckoning more with himself than his country. And so, in this play, he reads his personal diaries, his notebooks, on stage.

FUGARD: Sometimes I abandon the notebook. I get tired of them, and I want a new one.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. It looked like you stopped halfway in that one. There's a lot of empty pages. But it's...

FUGARD: Yeah, I stopped halfway. Let me see.

MONTAGNE: There you go.

(LAUGHTER)

FUGARD: Well, I - can I read you one?

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

FUGARD: An entry?

MONTAGNE: Please.

FUGARD: (Reading) It is Monday, the 15th, July, 2013. I was about to leave my chair, urgent matters needed my attention, and then a butterfly landed on a wall, and folded its wings in prayer. Also this morning, the shadow of a hummingbird on the floor at my feet, a perfect outline.

MONTAGNE: An outline for a two-character play. Onstage is the grandfather, Oupa, and the young grandson who adores him, Boba. The grandfather has led an overly intellectual life, with a passion for listing and categorizing birds he's spotted. But on this day, he shares a story with Boba about seeing birds in a way that moved him spiritually.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY, "THE SHADOW OF THE HUMMINGBIRD")

FUGARD: (as Oupa) Five sunbirds, flying around in that forest of love. I counted them - one, two, three, four, five - sparking in the sunshine as they hopped from flower to flower, dipping their beaks in, and me shouting hallelujah. Yes, Boba. I did shout it. But ever so softly, because I didn't want to break the spell of that moment.

MONTAGNE: And that moment gets to the essence of this play: an older man talking to his grandson and trying to allow his grandson, or urging his grandson, rather, to keep hold of his innocence. And the grandfather, who sees himself as coming to the end, is trying to get back that innocence.

FUGARD: Well, I think I suppose I encumbered the character in my play who has vastly more pseudo-knowledge than I have, in order to make my point finally that in the course of acquiring all this so-called knowledge, I've lost something. I've lost contact with something that I had. Because the moment when he saw those five sunbirds, that sort of rejoicing he had, the hallelujah that he wanted to shout aloud, all of that was there from my notebooks. And I wonder about myself now. I haven't shouted hallelujah for a long time, you know. Can I do it once more? I would like to believe that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Athol Fugard. His new play is called "The Shadow of the Hummingbird."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Renee joined him at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.