Tag Archives: Morlan Higgins

Fountain Family Spotlight: Jenna Blaustein and Robert Leventer

by France-Luce Benson

Robert and Jenna have been faithful members of The Fountain Family since the 1990s. What’s kept them coming back? Robert says, “…the quality of the acting, the diversity of plays, you always get the best”.

A native of Detroit, Robert moved to Los Angeles in 1975, and never looked back. Coming from Detroit, the weather was an obvious draw. But what he really loved was the cultural diversity, and the ever-evolving music and theatre scene. In the last four decades, he’s watched the Los Angeles theatre scene evolve into an exciting place to see innovative new voices, with Fountain at the center of it all. “Back when I first moved here, many of the intimate theatres mostly produced vanity productions. But in the late 80s/90s, more and more theatres were producing plays that were challenging…cutting edge.”  

Some of his favorite Fountain productions over the years are Tarrel McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water; Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman, and Exits and Entrances by Athol Fugard. The latter is one of his all-time favorites. “Morlan Higgins was amazing, and the play spoke to people who love the theatre. And I love the theatre.” A fan of Fugard, one of Robert and Jenna’s fondest memories is of a fundraiser for The Fountain in which Fugard talked about how he created the play, The Train Driver. That remains a special memory for the both of them.

Married 37 years, Robert and Jenna don’t always see eye to eye on every show – but The Fountain productions always give them plenty to talk about. “After the Fall was especially juicy…lots of loose ends to discuss”

This time in quarantine has allowed Robert and Jenna to indulge in some much-needed binge watching. Some of the stand outs include Ramy (Hulu), Love on the Spectrum (Netflix), and My Brilliant Friend (HBO) For their theatre fix, they enjoyed Richard Nelson’s “Apple Family Play – What Do We Need to Talk About?

Robert has also remained busy as a Board member of Boston Court Theatre, and with his work as a Superior Court Commissioner, hearing Juvenile Court cases. His occupation may have prepared him to endure the challenging times we are in.  He continues to find hope and joy in the world. When I asked what’s been giving him hope in these last few months, he replied “All of you; all you theatre folks out there continuing to create, keeping the art form alive”.

We are so lucky to have these two lovers of theatre as a part of our family. Thank you, Robert and Jenna, for all your support over the years. 

France-Luce Benson is a playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre.

Celebrity reading of ‘MS. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON’ at LA City Hall is “awe-inspiring”

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“Ms. Smith Goes to Washington” at Los Angeles City Hall

by Christine Deitner

On Thursday, January 24th a lucky group of citizens in Los Angeles was treated to a unique experience–The Fountain Theatre’s reading of a gender-switched adaptation of Sidney Buchman’s screenplay, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  The Fountain’s Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs adapted the work that was hosted by Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell.  An impressively talented ensemble of tv, film, and theatre veterans gathered in the John Ferraro Council Chamber in Los Angeles City Hall and though the original work is 79 years old the gender switch makes it feel like yesterday’s tweetstorm or this morning’s news.

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Sponsored, in part, by the Feminist Majority Foundation and in association with the League of Women Voters, the event’s cast included Joshua Malina, Jeff PerryBellamy Young, Sam Waterston, Alan Blumenfeld, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Leith Burke, Tim Cummings, Cameron Dye, Spencer Garrett, Chet Grissom, Morlan Higgins, Aurelia Myers, Jenny O’Hara, Felix Solis, Jack Stehlin, Mark Taylor, and Sal Viscuso.

Councilmember O’Farrell introduced Mr. Sachs with a moving speech about the importance of the arts in society. 

“Politics falls short of completely illuminating the complexity of issues,” he stated, “this is where the arts come in.”

In 2017, Mr. O’Farrell hosted the Fountain’s reading of All The Presidents Men and he noted that he hopes this will become an annual event.  Reflecting on the record number of women who now hold public office, O’Farrell also spoke about the role that local artists play as public servants, illuminating issues in unique ways.

In Sachs’ version, an idealistic, newly elected female senator finds herself fighting corruption in male-dominated Washington. Bellamy Young’s take on the movingly patriotic Jennifer Smith [originally Jefferson played by James Stewart] is endearing and as successful as a figure of naive nobility as Mr. Stewart was in the film.  It doesn’t seem like Mr. Sachs had to change very much beyond references to gender [Girl Rangers here instead of Boy Rangers] and one reference to “fake news” that worked very well in context, but boy does Jennifer Smith’s predicament feel familiar.

It’s Governor Hopper’s daughter [it was a son in the film] who encourages her father to choose Jennifer with the line “It’s 1939, not the dark ages, pop.” and a list of women who have held office before.  It shouldn’t have been surprising to hear it but we can thank Mr. Sachs for educating us about these women that included Senators Rebecca Latimer Felton [1922] and Hattie Caraway [1932].  Sam Waterston has the role of one of two villains, Senator Joseph Paine; a man who knew Jennifer’s father yet openly wonders whether they can “control a woman” in Congress.  The other is Jim Taylor, a nefarious businessman/mob figure played by Jeff Perry.

Fans of the film will know that Smith speaks fondly of his father a number of times, recalling that he often said, “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” As Jennifer learns that a swath of land in her state is going to be turned into a useless dam that is only an avenue for graft, she becomes determined to fight for that land where she was hoping to create a girls camp for young women across the nation.  Joshua Malina is her charmingly cynical assistant Chester Saunders [Jean Arthur in the film] who begrudgingly assists her in writing a bill for that girl’s camp.  As they work together, Jennifer’s enthusiasm for the bill starts to wear down Saunders’ certainty it will fail and when she becomes aware of the relief bill that includes the dam, she decides to filibuster with his help.

Paine and his pro-dam cohorts do all they can to attack Jennifer’s character as they angrily state any blocking of the relief bill will lead to starving the people.  Paine likens her attempt to hold the floor to holding the people hostage.  There was an audible gasp in the audience followed by a few laughs for this reading took place near the end of Trump’s wall-inspired government shutdown.  All of the pain that shutdown was inflicting on government workers was present in the room at that moment.

Jennifer stands firm in her convictions, even when Paine reads telegrams purportedly from her home state asking her to stop. She reads the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and goes on till her voice is hoarse and even Paine can’t take her suffering anymore.  He breaks down and admits everything – and when Waterston embodied that moment, he tore the roof off the place, it was awe-inspiring.  Jennifer and Saunders have one last moment of celebration before the ends that felt a little rushed but that might have been due to the fact that the TVs behind the cast popped on. 

In lieu of credits, images of every woman who has held a seat in Congress appeared in succession on the screens. Members of the audience stood to applaud them, with more standing when California’s own Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein appeared.  But it wasn’t till the video closed on a split screen image featuring Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren that the whole house got to their feet shouting.  It was a memorable, moving moment that reminded this reviewer of all the things that can be good and honorable and right in this country.  It also seemed like a hell of an idea for a presidential ticket in 2020 but that just shows how easy it was to get swept up in Jennifer Smith’s patriotic fervor.  Ms. Smith may seem naive and inexperienced, but that character’s faith in what is good in the country is honorable and constant – and those are traits we could all stand to develop in our own lives today.

This post originally appeared in The Theatre Times.

 

Sam Waterston joins cast of Fountain Theatre’s ‘Ms. Smith Goes to Washington’ at L.A. City Hall

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Sam Waterston

Sam Waterston (Law & Order, The Newsroom, Gracie and Frankie) will join Scandal co-stars Joshua MalinaJeff Perry and Bellamy Young for a one-night only, all-star reading of Ms. Smith Goes to Washington at Los Angeles City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m.

The gender-switched adaptation of Sidney Buchman’s screenplay for the 1939 Jimmy Stewart classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is adapted and directed by Fountain co-artistic director Stephen Sachs. The free reading is being presented by the Fountain Theatre in partnership with the City of Los Angeles and with exclusive permission from SONY Pictures. It will be hosted by Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell and will take place in the John Ferraro Council Chamber.  A catered reception will follow in the City Hall Rotunda.

In Sachs’ version, an idealistic, newly elected female senator finds herself fighting corruption in male-dominated Washington. Young will star in the title role, and Waterston has been cast in the pivotal role of Senator Paine.

The full cast includes Joshua MalinaJeff PerryBellamy YoungSam Waterston, Alan BlumenfeldGilbert Glenn BrownLeith BurkeTim CummingsCameron DyeSpencer GarrettChet GrissomMorlan HigginsAurelia MyersJenny O’HaraFelix SolisJack StehlinMark Taylor and Sal Viscuso.

The event is a follow-up to the Fountain’s hugely successful 2018 celebrity reading of All the President’s Men. It is sponsored, in part, by the Feminist Majority Foundation and in association with the League of Women Voters.

Ms. Smith Goes to Washington takes place on Thursday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the John Ferraro Council ChamberRoom 340 of Los Angeles City Hall200 N Spring St.,Los Angeles, CA 90012. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Admission is free; however, seating is extremely limited. For more information, and to enter the ticket lottery, go to www.mssmith.org. Due to high security at the venue, no walk-ups will be permitted.

Photos: Fountain Theatre’s all-star reading of ‘All the President’s Men’ soars at LA City Hall

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The company of ‘All the President’s Men’

Saturday night’s exhilarating reading of All the President’s Men at Los Angeles City Hall was an historic event. Not only was it a powerful statement advocating Freedom of the Press and honoring American journalism, it demonstrated a watershed moment in our city’s engagement with local arts organizations. Never has the City of Los Angeles handed over its Council Chamber to a theatre company and partnered with it in this way. We applaud Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell and his staff for making it possible.

The Fountain Theatre believes that events like All the President’s Men, where art and politics intersect to enhance our civic discourse, are essential to an informed society.  We believe a small theatre can do big things.  As Charles McNulty stated in his feature story on our event in the Los Angeles Times, “it is heartening to see an intimate theater like the Fountain advocating for what is in our collective interest as a nation.”

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Jeff Perry and Joe Morton, co-stars on ABC-TV’s hit series Scandal, took on the roles of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and anonymous source “Deep Throat,” joining alumni of The West Wing Bradley Whitford as Bob Woodward and Joshua Malina as Carl Bernstein; Richard Schiff as Post local news editor Harry Rosenfeld; and Ed Begley, Jr. as managing editor Howard Simons. The cast also featured Sam AndersonLeith BurkeSeamus DeverJames Dumont, Arianna OrtizSpencer GarrettDeidrie HenryMorlan HigginsAnna KhajaKaren KondazianRob NagleVirginia NewcombLarry Poindexter and Andrew Robinson. The reading was directed by Stephen Sachs, with sound design by Peter Bayne. 

The reading supported, in part, the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s oldest organization representing American journalists, founded to protect journalism and dedicated to the continuation of a free press. We were honored to be joined by the Los Angeles Press Club, which supports, promotes, and defends quality journalism in Southern California with the belief that a free press is crucial to a free society. And The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, defending the fundamental rights of each citizen as outlined in the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

“We have a commander-in-chief who does not respect or even understand the freedoms embedded in our Constitution or its First Amendment,” said Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who hosted the reading in the John Ferraro Council Camber. “The Trump administration’s war on the First Amendment includes repeated degradations of the role of media in our society and repeated invocations of ‘fake news’ when the absolute truth does not suit him, blacklisting press on occasion, including, and not ironically, The Washington Post, [and] open discrimination and intolerance under the guise of religious freedom.”

“In Los Angeles, we hold these values dear,” O’Farrell continued. “Donald Trump and his administration do not represent our values. The state of California and the city of Los Angeles, we are leading the resistance. All of us gathered here tonight, we are part and parcel of that resistance.”

“I am so proud of our city,” stated Stephen Sachs in his remarks before the reading. “What other major city in the country would hand over City Hall to its artists? Would have its Councilmembers allowing artists to literally sit in their seats for one night to express an urgent fundamental truth about our country through their art?”

“To every news man and news woman in this room,” Sachs continued. “To every reporter, every elected official, every artist, every citizen – we offer this reminder of hope. The truth will set us free.”

Jeff Perry and Joe Morton of ‘Scandal’ join cast of ‘All the President’s Men’ at City Hall

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Full cast announced for celebrity reading

Final casting has been announced for the all-star reading of William Goldman’s screenplay for All The President’s Men scheduled to take place this SaturdayJan. 27 in the John Ferraro Council Chamber of Los Angeles City Hall.

Based on the book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the 1976 film All The President’s Men tells the story of their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the Watergate scandal, which brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.

Jeff Perry and Joe Morton, co-stars on ABC-TV’s hit series Scandal, will take on the roles of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and anonymous source “Deep Throat,” joining previously announced alumni of The West Wing Bradley Whitford as Woodward and Joshua Malina as Bernstein; Richard Schiff as Post local news editor Harry Rosenfeld; and Ed Begley, Jr. as managing editor Howard Simons. The cast will also feature Sam AndersonLeith BurkeSeamus DeverJames Dumont, Arianna OrtizSpencer GarrettDeidrie HenryMorlan HigginsAnna KhajaKaren KondazianRob NagleVirginia NewcombLarry Poindexter and Andrew Robinson.

The reading is being presented by the award-winning Fountain Theatre and co-sponsored by the City of L.A., the Los Angeles Press ClubDavis Wright Tremaine LLP and the American Civil Liberties Union as a statement asserting the First Amendment, advocating freedom of the press and honoring the tenacity of American journalism in a free society. Although admission to the reading is free of charge, any voluntary donations will support, in part, the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s oldest organization representing American journalists, founded to improve and protect journalism and dedicated to the perpetuation of a free press.

To date, over 5,000 reservation inquiries have been received. With only 240 seats available in the council chamber at City Hall, the producers have instituted a lottery system. No further requests are being accepted.

“We knew this would be a must-see event but this goes beyond our wildest expectations,” says Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs. “It shows how passionate the public feels about these urgent issues of Freedom of the Press and the sanctity of the First Amendment.”

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Fountain Theatre pledges it will not be silent

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Fountain Family: We will not be silent.

Have you heard of Rabbi Joachim Prinz? Probably not. In August of 1963, he and Martin Luther King, Jr. were among the ten leaders of the March on Washington.  Preceding King to the platform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before King declared his dream to the world, Prinz delivered a stirring speech against silence in the face of injustice.  It was an expression of his life-long commitment to equality and tolerance. 

rabbi-prinz“Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept,” he said. “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not ‘.the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

This past weekend, more than 50 years later, women across the nation marched on Washington once again. And on the Thursday prior to marching, on the eve of the Presidential Inauguration,  the Fountain Theatre made a pledge. It would not be silent.

Streaming live on Facebook, the Fountain joined 728 other theaters in all 50 states who gathered outside theaters nationwide to create a “light” for these dark times ahead. The Ghostlight Project offered theater artists and patrons the opportunity to renew a pledge to stand and protect the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone, regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

The Fountain Theatre joined theaters across the country to reaffirm and declare our commitment and solidarity to provide safe, brave spaces that will serve as lights in the coming years. List of participating theaters in ALL 50 STATES

What is a ghostlight? When our theaters go dark at the end of the night, we turn on a “ghost light” – offering visibility and safety for all who might enter. This is our theatrical tradition and the inspiration for this national event. Like a ghostlight, the light we created on January 19th represents our commitment to provide safety, a safe harbor, for everyone. To resist intolerance at all levels.

Fountain folk were asked to make signs, affirming “I Am” and “I Fight For”. Take a look.

On Thursday night, a crowd of Fountain Family members — actors, directors, stage managers, patrons and supporters — gathered outside the theatre at exactly at 5:30pm to join the live feed on Facebook. A statement was read by Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, and the group switched on the portable lights they were asked to bring, in symbolic gesture of adding light into the coming darkness.

The ceremony continued inside. Morlan Higgins played guitar and sang a song by Woody Guthrie. Stephen Sachs listed three Fountain productions of plays that dramatized the issues of tolerance, equality, and inclusion. My Mañana Comes brought to life the struggle of immigration, The Ballad of Emmett Till shed light on racism, and the The Normal Heart articulated the fight against AIDS and social prejudice in the gay community. Stephen then introduced cast members from these productions, each performing selections giving voice to these themes. It was very powerful and moving.

 

Quoting Rabbi Prinz, Sachs then announced the Fountain Theatre’s pledge that it “will not be silent.” He then instructed the group to once again switch on their portable lights, as he turned on the Fountain ghostlight that stood on stage, as a beacon of hope.

The Fountain ceremony ended with everyone joining Morlan on guitar and singing together the lively gospel song,  “This Little Light of Mine”.  Afterwards, the group gathered upstairs in the cafe for excited conversation, pizza and beer.

It was an inspiring and joyous evening. Like the light we shine, we will carry our pledge forward into the new year, and the years forever after. We will not remain silent.

“Something New” from Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard at the Fountain Theatre, Sept 2012

by Chris Thurman

The last time I met Athol Fugard, he was following a technical rehearsal of The Bird Watchers – his thirty-fourth play. Sitting in the auditorium of the Cape Town theatre that carries his name, Fugard leaned over and told me in an almost-conspiratorial whisper: “I’m working on something new.” The playwright’s eyes sparkled as he showed me a typescript of The Blue Iris. That script is now a performed reality (the US Premiere just concluded its run at the Fountain Theatre on September 16th).
Athol Fugard, who is based in San Diego, has returned to South Africa to take up a three-month residency in Stellenbosch and – you guessed it – he’s working on something new.

This time, we’re talking on the phone, but that same excitement is discernible in Fugard’s voice as he describes his “first attempt at Afrikaans theatre”. This may be surprising to many; after all, the work of this self-designated “half-English, half-Afrikaans bastard” (he grew up in a bilingual household) is peppered with Afrikaans phrases, characters and settings. His play texts have also been translated into Afrikaans, most recently The Captain’s Tiger/Die Kaptein se Tier by Antjie Krog. But Fugard himself has never penned an exclusively Afrikaans play, and he’s clearly eager to take up the challenge.

What is it, I wonder, that drives this restless creativity? What is the imperative that keeps an 80-year-old writing “compulsively”? In the past, Fugard has emphasised the feeling of both obligation and delight that accompanies his discovery or invention of characters and their stories: “Everything I have written is an attempt to share their secrets.” But watching The Blue Iris, I thought I discerned a darker (perhaps even desperate) impulse behind the author’s prolificacy.

Fugard outside the Fountain Theatre, Sept 2012.

The play is a different kind of “first”. Fugard’s work bears evidence of a range of influences, from Beckett to Camus – but, he tells me, “Before Blue Iris I had never written a play directly in response to a particular piece of writing.” The writer in question is Thomas Hardy, who is best known as a novelist but who turned away from fiction towards the end of his career and produced a series of poems that Fugard considers “among the finest in the English language”. Hardy wrote them after the death of his wife, Emma, from whom he had become estranged (he subsequently married his secretary): they express grief, regret and longing for an irrecoverable past, ultimately paying tribute to the relationship.

The Blue Iris is, in turn, a tribute to Hardy’s poems – an encomium in which that curious love triangle takes on a South African incarnation, in the Karoo landscape so closely associated with Fugard. We find Robert Hannay and his sometime housekeeper, Rieta Plaasman, camping outside the ruins of a farmhouse that Robert had built for his young English bride, Sally. It stood for decades until, one night, it was consumed by fire after a lightning strike. Sally died shortly afterwards, but her spirit haunts the place; Rieta has stayed with Robert during his unsuccessful attempt to recover items lost in the fire, hoping to exorcise Sally’s ghost.

Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris” (Fountain, 2012)

In the opening dialogue, Robert admits to Rieta that his recuperative efforts remind him of an old story about “some arme ou skepsel who, as punishment for something bad, is made to push a big rock all the way up to the top of a koppie. But just when he gets there, he slips, the rock rolls back down the hill, and he has to start all over again. And so it goes, on and on…” This is, of course, the tale of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to an eternity of futile labor – a likely comparison, particularly given the prevalence of ancient Greek myth in Fugard’s oeuvre.

Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris” (Fountain Theatre, 2012)

Yet the allusion is given a different resonance as, during the course of the play, we learn that Sally was a talented artist. She spent years painting the flowers of the Karoo, partly out of a wish to locate herself within a landscape to which she felt foreign and partly to reconcile with Robert, from whom she had grown distant as the strain of farming under conditions of drought took its toll. The blue iris – the ‘bloutulp’, Moraea polystachya – was her first subject: a beautiful but poisonous plant, surviving the harshest conditions but deadly to animals. The painting was the centrepiece of her collection, but we hear Sally’s ghost shriek, at the climax of the action, “I didn’t get it right!”

I put it to Fugard: does this aspect of The Blue Iris reflect his own frustration as an artist? Is the relentless desire to create new plays, to write new stories, a Sisyphean curse? “That’s a fair interpretation,” he replies. “When I look back on my earlier stuff, there is always a sense of ‘If only I’d known then what I know now…’ And yes, I think I am more critical of my own work than anyone else.”

He notes that, along with The Captain’s Tiger (1997) and The Bird Watchers (2011), Master Harold … and the Boys (1982) makes up a trio of “portraits of the writer – from arrogant little schoolboy to adolescent ambition and finally a playwright wrestling with the material of his own life. They all have the same concern: what does it mean to be a writer?”

Fugard at the Fountain Theatre

I ask Fugard what he makes of the other ways in which his plays have been grouped together. Some critics have noted, for instance, that The Blue Iris continues a pattern established in Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001) and Victory (2007), in which much of the dramatic tension stems from the age and race of the main protagonists: an older white man and a younger coloured woman.

“Any writer,” Fugard concurs, “has only a handful of themes. You don’t invent a theme every time you write a play.” We talk about the conscious echoes in Blue Iris of earlier plays, such as Boesman and Lena (1969) – the trope of homelessness is underscored when Rieta complains, “We are living out here like people in one of those plakker kampe outside PE” – and A Lesson From Aloes (1978), in which a character affirms that studying Karoo flora “makes me feel that little bit more at home in my world”.

Indeed, Fugard takes the idea of “categorising” his plays even further. “Look at Blood Knot (1961), Boesman and Lena and Hello and Goodbye (1965), which together examine the primary relationships in a family: between siblings, between spouses, between children and parents. I didn’t set out consciously to do that, but it happened.” And, of course, there is Fugard’s “sustained romance with the opposite sex – in my work, I mean. Blood Knot is the only one of my plays in which the dominant, most powerful presence is not a central female character.”

This is certainly true of Boesman and Lena, which has been ‘updated’ by director James Ngcobo for a current staging at the Baxter Theatre. Fugard says he’d like to go and watch the show “with a disguise on”, just to see how it has been revised. “My plays are like my children – they must make their own way in the world.”

Chris Thurman is Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg (South Africa); a freelance arts journalist, academic and editor. 

LA Weekly: The Timeless Voice in Fugard’s “The Blue Iris” at the Fountain

Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”

by Steven Leigh Morris

A series of poems by Thomas Hardy, grieving after the death of his first, estranged wife, inspired Athol Fugard‘s latest play, The Blue Iris, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, directed by Stephen Sachs.

Athol Fugard, the internationally renowned Causasian South African dramatist who writes in English, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his early writing career dedicated to battling his nation’s apartheid policies (in plays such as Blood Knot, 1961; and Master Harold and the Boys, 1982). Fugard was as brave as a playwright could be, joining the ranks of Chile‘s Ariel Dorfman and Czechoslovakia‘s Václav Havel by risking prison for writing works that looked askance at the policies of their authoritarian governments. It was a baton they passed along to the likes of Russian punk band Pussy Riot.

But when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in South African prisons, and in the nation’s first multiracial elections became the nation’s first black president, the purpose of aging white liberals such as Fugard became ever more nuanced and difficult to define. After all, South Africa’s brave new future also contained a raging AIDS epidemic, and the continuation of unspeakable poverty, revenge and violence.

That transition is what Fugard has been writing about since 1994, in a series of plays set in his beloved Karoo, among them Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001),Victory (2007) and his latest, The Blue Iris.

Invariably, they concern an aging white man and young “colored” (the South African term for mixed-race) woman. In Valley Song, presented here at the Mark Taper Forum, the young woman, Veronica, needed to come of age, to escape the confines of the Karoo for a faster life in the city. She was an innocent, and a symbol of the future.

Sorrows and Rejoicings (also premiered here at the Taper) concerned a white, male poet from South Africa who went into exile inLondon. When he returned to the Karoo, he was dying. There he met the young colored woman he left behind, Rebecca. She answered his abandonment of her by burning his early poems. The essence of Fugard’s anxiety was spoken in a single line from that play:

“For your soul’s sake, Rebecca, I hope you know that what you did was terribly wrong. What you turned to ash and smoke out there in the veldt was evidence of a man’s love, for his country, for his people — for you! Don’t reject it. … Rejoice in it! Because if you think you and your New South Africa don’t need it, you are making a terrible mistake.”

In Victory, which received its U.S. premiere at the Fountain Theatre, also directed by Sachs, the aging white man (Morlan Higgins) found himself being robbed and held hostage by the young colored woman (born on the day Mandela was released from prison, and consequently named Vickie in honor of this victory) and her boyfriend. The old man was Vickie’s educator and mentor. Her petty criminal alliance was a representation of how the innocence of Veronica and the hope for the future in Valley Song had corroded in Fugard’s eyes.

Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill

Fugard’s plays have been getting ever more despondent, and The Blue Iris contains his most austere view to date. Morlan Higgins returns as Robert Hannay, eking out an existence in the Karoo near the charred remains of a house where the colored woman, Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill), once grew up and worked as a housekeeper. Robert still grieves for his wife, Sally (Jacqueline Schultz, appearing as a phantom), who died of a heart attack shortly after a lightning strike that burned their home. (Jeff McLaughlin‘s set depicts blackened beams and detached doors amidst piles of detritus.)

Sally begged Robert not to leave the night of that storm, but he was determined to buy a new breeding ram, and so now he lives with the agony of his decision on that night of decimation. Rieta stands by him, for reasons unveiled in the play. She endures his conjurings of Sally.

Some verses of one poem by Hardy, “The Voice,” embody Robert’s state of mind:

“Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,

Standing as when I drew near to the town

Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,

Even to the original air-blue gown!

“Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness

Traveling across the wet mead to me here,

You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,

Heard no more again far or near?”

Sally, a painter by avocation, floats through the play on the day Rieta discovers Sally’s only painting that was untouched by the fire. It’s a botanical portrait of a blue iris, which for Robert brings back the memory of when Sally found the flower on the floor of the drought-blasted veldt — a single symbol of hope in a withered landscape otherwise punctuated by the death of plants and sheep.

That particular flower, however, has poison within its beauty, enough poison to “bring down an ox,” which is why the local farmers so loath it. That’s what Sally was trying to capture. What looks pretty contains toxins. And there you have the parable for the contamination of a hope-filled future.

Sachs’ meticulously rendered production features a trio of impeccable performances. These include Schultz as Sally’s ghost, who arrives as though via tornado, chattering and desperate, before she’s sucked away by that same wind tunnel, to explain the meaning of her painting, and of how in painting it she failed to convey that meaning.

Then there’s Higgins as Robert, and his fastidious, lumbering search for his own meaning amidst the remains, his world-weary eyes, the sonorous, aching tone in his voice. Hill’s Rieta offers a spritely foil — she’s as impatient as she is pained. Their joint decision, the only decision in the play, is whether she and Robert, both tramps and Platonic lovers, should stay or go, together or apart. And there’s an allegory in that, too, about circumstantial bonds and inexorable isolation. The play is saturated in allegories.

Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins

To fully appreciate The Blue Iris, however, one might look beyond Thomas Hardy’s poems to W.B. Yeats‘ poetical drama Purgatory, also set by the remains of a charred house. Purgatory also studies a man grieving for his late wife, trying to release her from purgatory. She, too, paces between life and death, listless in her travels beyond existence. The other character in Purgatoryis the man’s son, representing a hope for the future that stands on the brink of corrosion.

Both plays wrestle with how past and future can possibly travel any road together. And yet they do, as they must, as they always have. The ensuing, combustible emotions are what provide the fire of our most timeless poems and stories, where writers such as Yeats and Fugard ache to fathom the unfathomable.

Steven Leigh Morris writes for the LA Weekly.

THE BLUE IRIS | By Athol Fugard | Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Sept. 16. |   (323) 663-1525       |fountaintheatre.com

PHOTO SLIDESHOW: Athol Fugard at the Fountain

World-Famous Playwright Enjoys US Premiere of his New Play “The Blue Iris” and Q&A Talk Back with Audience

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The Blue Iris   Now – Sept 16  (323) 663-1525   More Info   Buy Tickets

Fugard and the Fountain

Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”

Back in the year 2000, legendary South African playwright Athol Fugard was residing in Del Mar, teaching playwriting, acting and directing at UC San Diego — while continuing to turn out the prolific body of work that had earned him worldwide acclaim.

He heard from friends of his, whose opinions he respected, that the Fountain Theatre in LA had mounted a very good production of his 1984 play, The Road to Mecca. With trepidation, Fugard traveled to the Fountain to see what this director named Stephen Sachs had done to his work.

Six Fugard/Fountain Theatre collaborations later, the Fountain is now presenting the US premiere of Fugard’s latest work. The Blue Iris, helmed by Sachs, opens Friday, in celebration of the master playwright’s 80th birthday and his ongoing collaboration with the Fountain.

Athol Fugard

In a telephone interview from New York, Fugard admits, “I’ve always been wary of seeing plays of mine that I myself hadn’t directed.  Eventually I went to the Fountain and saw this marvelous production, staged by Stephen.  I met Stephen and I met the cast of that production and found myself saying to Stephen, ‘I want my next play to be done in your theater.’  I loved the feel of it.  Everything about it felt right — the theater, the size of the space, the atmosphere.  It was perfect for my sorts of plays.  So, when my next play was ready, I brought it to Stephen.”

Sachs has his own memory of his first encounter with Fugard in 2000. “I was told he never goes to see productions of his plays that other people do.  Well, I learned he was coming. Of course, I was excited and terrified. I didn’t tell the actors that Athol was there.  After the performance, during the applause, I want backstage quickly and told the actors, ‘There’s someone I want you to meet.’ The actors came out and I said, ‘I would like you all to meet Athol Fugard.’ And they all screamed. Of course, we were all so happy when he told us he loved our production.  We all went out afterwards. And we just kept corresponding after that. When Fugard was directing Sorrows and Rejoicings at the Mark Taper [in 2002], I kept saying to him, ‘If you’re ever looking for a small, intimate, artistic home to develop a new work, away from a larger theatrical institution, where you can just work quietly in a nurturing environment, the Fountain is yours’.”

One day in 2004, Fugard sent Sachs an e-mail with a file attached to it. The e-mail message read, “Attached to this file is my new play and I want you to direct it.”  The play was Exits and Entrances, which went on to garner three Ovation Awards and a slew of LADCC, LA Weekly and Backstage honors.

Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins

Fugard’s newest work, The Blue Iris, recently premiered in Cape Town and has since moved to Johannesburg.  It is a three-character play in one act, which Fugard takes time to carefully explain.

“The inspiration for this play came from two directions. It is set in the Karoo, a semi-desert area in the heart of South Africa, where several of my plays have been set. One of the features of this rather small area is a very beautiful mountain.  I’ve climbed that mountain several times, often with a friend. It is quite a stiff climb but a good one, not dangerous really. We always used to park our car at the foot of the mountain at a lovely old farmhouse, which was owned by a very cordial farmer. He became a friend of ours.  When we would come down from our climb, he was always  there waiting for us with something to drink or to eat.  It was a great relationship. But on this one occasion when I went with my friend to climb the mountain, we arrived at this farmhouse to find it had been totally destroyed by a fire, which was started by a lightning strike. This wonderful man and his wife were living in a little tent outside the house, just trying to salvage what they could.

Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill

“The second image which inspired this play came from a farmer’s wife, totally unrelated to the first farmer I mentioned. She was a wonderful painter of wild flowers, of botanically accurate wild flowers. These weren’t only pretty paintings, these were botanical drawings that helped you identify the flower — the seed capsule, the root structure, everything. It was a fusion of those two images that finally brought me to writing The Blue Iris.  There were a lot of complex personal issues that came into the play as well. I had a sense of how we men can get so absorbed in our own egos, our own personalities, never fully realizing what damage we do to others on the way.”

Fugard pauses in his discourse and chuckles. “I don’t think I properly understand the play yet, myself. I mean that. We writers quite often don’t know what we’ve written about.  There have been many times that I haven’t known what the full resonances are of the story that I’ve told.   It has often been only when I have been in the rehearsal room directing actors, helping them to understand the characters that they in turn helped me to understand what I had written.”

Stephen Sachs and Morlan Higgins.

“I received The Blue Iris a few months ago,” Sachs continues. “I knew about the play for a few years.  I know that Athol was working on it, developing it. I knew that he was going to present the world premiere in South Africa, which is pretty much his way of working now. They’ve named a theater after him, the Fugard Theatre.  I am honored to be doing it here at the Fountain.  My cast includes two Fugard regulars here at the Fountain, Morlan Higgins and Jacqueline Schultz.  Julanne Chidi Hill is new to the Fountain.  She’s a discovery.

“This work has some classic Fugard themes in it – the search for hope, the struggle with loss and the fight for dignity.  It is a love story and very much about finding the courage and strength to move forward in what sometimes can seem like bleak and painful circumstances. It is a profoundly human story about these three individuals who live together in this house: this man Robert, who was a farmer, his wife Sally, who is deceased, and their housekeeper Rita.

“The play begins after the house has been burned to the ground by a fire and Robert and Rita are sifting through the debris. She wants to move on and take Robert with her. While going through the debris, they discover a painting of a blue iris that his wife Sally had done. Finding that painting triggers memory and forces Robert to look at the truth of the reality of his marriage to Sally.”

Fugard will not be at the Fountain for its debut. “I’ve been here in New York for a whole year directing plays, currently The Train Driver. This is also a play that Stephen Sachs has done. This is its New York premiere. I will be coming to see Blue Iris.  I am leaving New York this coming Sunday and flying down to San Diego.  I’m going to give myself a bit of a rest first and then come up to Los Angeles to see Stephen’s production.  I am not going to tell him the date because I don’t want any fuss or bother when I come to see it. I am just going to quietly slip into the theater.”

Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins

As for the future, Fugard wants to keep it simple. “I do not multi-track. I work on one play at a time, like a good alcoholic goes one day at a time. My home now is in Del Mar.  My plans for the immediate future are to go back to South Africa in September to direct a new play that I haven’t got a title for yet, because I am still putting the finishing touches to it.  I’ll decide on a title a little bit later on. I will always premiere my work in South Africa. And I’ll probably always think of the Fountain as the next possibility.”

— Julio Martinez, writes for LA Stage Times

The Blue IrisFountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave, LA 90029. Opens Aug 24. Plays Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Sep 16.   323-663-1525.www.fountaintheatre.com/perform.html

***All photos by Ed Krieger