Students from our neighborhood Ramona Elementary School on Mariposa Street only had to walk around the corner to experience a unforgettable day of creativity, fun and artistic expression at the Fountain Theatre. The kids joined Fountain staff for ‘Painted Rocks Day’, a community arts event inviting the students to visit the theatre, learn about Outsider Art and rock painting, then choose and paint their own smooth rocks to express their world view and inner selves.
The educational activity was a satellite event of the Fountain Theatre’s west coast premiere of Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, dramatizing the life and vision of South African artist Nuzain Mabuza who painted hundreds of rocks on a hillside in bright colors and patterns to create his visionary “flower garden” .
Led by teacher Eric Arboleda, the twenty-four 3rd graders arrived Friday morning and were given tours of the Fountain Theatre by staff members. The group was shown the remarkable ‘Painted Rocks’ set on the main stage, complete with real dirt, plants and a vibrant collection of painted rocks and boulders.
Fountain intern Lexi Lallatin lead the class in a lesson discussing examples of Outsider Art and how art can be created by ordinary found objects. Lexi shared the story of Nuzain Mabuza and encouraged the students to imagine how they might transform everyday objects in their daily lives into magical art pieces.
The group then moved outside to the Fountain parking lot where a long art table holding rocks, paints and brushes was waiting. The students excitedly dove in and went to work. Each chose their own rock and were told to paint it however they wished, with as many colors and patterns they imagined, to express who they were and their own inner vision.
The results were extraordinary. Simple gray stones were transformed into vibrant talismen of color and bright patterns. The students thoroughly enjoyed themselves. They painted, laughed and chatted excitedly as they worked for one hour. Donuts and juice were served.
The rocks painted by the students will remain on display in the lobby of the Fountain Theatre throughout the run of The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek to December 14th. At that time, the rocks will then be given to the students to take home.
We wish to thank American Builders Supply in Pacoima for donating the rocks for the students to paint, and Stan’s Doughnuts for the snacks. A shout-out to Fountain staff members Lexi Lallatin, James Bennett, Scott Tuomey, and Barbara Goodhill for helping to make the event a joyous success.
‘Painted Rocks Day’ with Ramona Elementary School was created through Theatre As a Learning Tool, the Fountain Theatre’s educational outreach program dedicated to making art accessible to students and young people in Los Angeles.
At last night’s preview performance of The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, the theatre was packed with 80 students from Mission Viejo High School who came with energy, enthusiasm, and questions for the cast and director. A terrific Q&A discussion was held immediately after the performance and everyone — artists, students and teachers — had a wonderful time.
The students were from humanities classes and already familiar with the work of playwright Athol Fugard. One student shared that eight years ago she had actually visited the actual hillside in South Africa where Nukain Mabuza painted his famous rocks. She found the play — and seeing the set with its colorful, rocky landscape — very moving and meaningful. The students asked many interesting and insightful questions of cast members Gilbert Glenn Brown, Thomas Silcott, Philip Solomon, Suanne Spoke, and director Simon Levy. The discussion was moderated by Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs.
This special evening was part of Theatre as a Learning Tool, the Fountain Theatre’s educational outreach program making the live theatre experience accessible to students.
Nukain Mabuza was born in Mozambique. His mother was descended from a long line of Tsonga healers and diviners, a walker between worlds. While pregnant with Nukain she was instructed in a dream to take special care of her unborn son because great things were expected of him.
When Nukain was seventeen, his mother was killed at the riverside by a crocodile. Mabuza left his village, walked a long journey, met spiritual guides and had otherworldly visions. He was shown the whole universe, all life and the afterlife filled with birdsong. He moved to Soweto and found work in a factory. But his religious dreams and spiritual visions continued and he wandered the land. One night, Mabuza fell into a deep sleep. A surge of power coursed through him. When he woke, he was filled with a spirit to fulfill his mission: to go home and prepare the Garden of Eden.
Mabuza began creating his visionary garden near Revolver Creek in Kaapmuiden, Mpumalanga, in the late 1960s. He described how, looking downward from the top, the painted rocks appear to be flowers tumbling from heaven. Gazing up at his colorful hillside, he said, ‘I have the most beautiful garden in the universe.’ Mabuza passed away in October 1981. Legend surrounds even his death. Some say Mabuza dug his own grave at the top of his painted mountain before burying himself under a pile of rocks and taking his own life. He was later buried in a pauper’s grave in Emjindini Cemetery in Barberton. Although Nukain Mabuza died in relative obscurity, he left behind important works of art that today attract visitors from around the world. He has received posthumous recognition as an important South African “Outsider” artist. His “Garden of Flowers” continues to inspire other creative minds, including triggering the imagination of playwright Athol Fugard.
“At the heart of it all is a face and a human story, never an idea. I only put words to paper if I have a story to tell,” says Athol Fugard as he reflects on 60 years as a writer and playwright.
“Every play generates expectations and demands,” he continued. “I’m not a political playwright. I’m a storyteller but it’s impossible to tell a South African story honestly and with humility, and not have political resonance. We take politics to bed with us, take it to our dreams.”
“I simply tell stories about South African people. I go where my unpredictable imagination wants me to go.”
Outlining where it all began, Fugard described studying anthropology and philosophy at the University of Cape Town but quietly “wrestling with Sartre and falling in love with Camus, Faulkner and Tolstoy – the writer had begun to stir”.
“I realised that all I wanted to do was tell stories about people. Camus’ courageous pessimism and his exploration of human connection as an act of defiance in particular resonated with my challenge – the predicament of what being a South African was all about.”
“While Faulkner made me never hesitate to be as regional and local as the story needed to be.”
Elizabeth Magdalena Potgieter
He also credits his mother, Elizabeth Magdalena Potgieter, as having distilled the power of language into his soul. “What she did with the English language in her mouth – either to hide secrets or at a crucial moment to reveal them. It’s why I got in to writing plays.” Despite having “scraped tickies and sixpence together to get me to university” she never hesitated when he told her he wanted to write.
He described his first attempt at writing a novel while serving as a seaman on the S. S. Gregor which sailed from Port Sudan. “It ended up in the sea while we were moored in a Fiji lagoon,” he said. “Many times since I have wished I had a lagoon at hand.”
Now with 35 plays, two novels, a memoir and short stories, as well as countless awards and honours to his name, Fugard described the excitement of his first published and performed play – The Blood Knot. “I had found my voice, my watershed. It was a story set in the nitty-gritty specifics of a small corner of the world. But I had told a story that only I could tell, in a way that only I could tell it.”
Athol Fugard and Zakes Mokae, ‘The Blood Knot’ (1961)
“At that point English theatre in South Africa was largely a pale, anaemic copy of British theatre. The idea that South African stories belonged on a stage was not really known.”
Occupying space, time and silence
He describes a play as “a complex time machine, a wind-up toy that scurries around, occupying space, time and silence”. Space because there is a physical space to fill – the stage. Time – because “the audience can’t stay sitting all night”. And silence because “it has to be occupied”.
“You can go anywhere you like – with an invitation from the blank page to surprise the reader and the audience.”
“But you have to be determined not to be pigeonholed. That can end with the writer just imitating himself,” he continued.
Fugard explained his use of notebooks, which date back to the 1960s and have been published, to record and describe incidents and moments from life to which he will return. “We have agreed to meet again in the future. Made an appointment.”
“I take my appointment with my notebooks very seriously,” he added. But he admits now that he does worry “Do I have enough time and energy left to keep that appointment?”
“Must I say farewell without having told their story? If I run out of time and can’t keep that appointment, I will descend into my grave an unhappy man.”
The west coast premiere of Athol Fugard’s new play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, opens at the Fountain Theatre on Nov 7th. More Info/Get Tickets
The Fountain Theatre continues its 15-year relationship with master playwright Athol Fugard, presenting the West Coast premiere of his newest play. Directed by Simon Levy, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek opens on November 7 at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.
Both Fugard and the Fountain come full circle with Painted Rocks, a play inspired by the work of real-life outsider artist Nukain Mabuza. In 1972, a personal encounter with outsider artist Helen Martins, a reclusive and ostracized figure in a small, ultra-conservative Afrikaans community who had created an extraordinary collection of statues in her back yard, led to Fugard’s celebrated play, The Road to Mecca. And it was the Fountain’s Los Angeles premiere of that play in 2000, directed by Fountain co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, that introduced the playwright to the theater he would come to call his “artistic home on the West Coast.”
“Forty years later [after my encounter with Helen Martins], I became aware of another outsider artist worthy of the same attention, working in completely different circumstances and also with a different medium,” wrote Fugard on the website of South Africa’s Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies, where he is currently an artist-in-residence. “The environment of present-day South Africa made me realize the true potential of Nukain’s story, and that, even though he worked on the fringes, it can in fact not be fully realized without taking on the realities of his existence in apartheid South Africa.”
In the play, the aging Nukain (Thomas Silcott) has spent his life transforming the rocks at Revolver Creek into a vibrant garden of painted flowers. Faced with the presence of the final unpainted rock — and at the insistence of his young companion, Bokkie (Philip Solomon) — he is forced to confront his legacy as an artist and a black man in 1980s South Africa. When the landowner’s wife (Suanne Spoke) arrives to demand he stop painting, the deep racial conflict of the country is viscerally exposed. Twenty years later, in what has become the new South Africa, the man called Bokkie as a child (Gilbert Glenn Brown) returns to restore Mabuza’s lifework.
“Possibly, at this moment in our history, the stories that need telling are more urgent than any of the stories that needed telling during the apartheid years,” Fugard said in an interview with NPR.
“At the heart of Athol’s beautiful new play is the issue of seeing and being seen – as an artist, as a man, especially as a black man,” says Levy. “It’s an on-going, universal problem that Athol has spent his life exploring and exposing and humanizing. To be seen for who you really are, and to be loved and honored for that. It’s a beautiful message, and one we need to hear over and over again.”
The author of over 30 plays and recipient of countless accolades including an Academy Award, Obie and the 2011 Special Tony Award for Lifetime in the Theatre, Athol Fugard is best known for his plays about the frustrations of life in contemporary South Africa and the psychological barriers created by apartheid. Widely acclaimed around the world, his plays include Boesman and Lena (Obie Award, Best Foreign Play), Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (Tony Award, Best Play), A Lesson from Aloes (New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Best Play), the semiautobiographical Master Harold…and the Boys (Writers Guild Award, Outstanding Achievement) and The Road to Mecca(New York Drama Critics Circle Citation, Best Foreign Play, London Evening Standard Award, Best Play). The first white South African playwright to collaborate with black actors and workers, some of his works, such as Blood Knot, were initially banned in South Africa. In his first two post-apartheid plays, Valley Song (1995) and The Captain’s Tiger (1998), Fugard addressed more personal concerns, but in Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001) he focused on the complex racial dynamics of South Africa’s new era. In 2005 his novel, Tsotsi (1980), was adapted for the screen, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
When Fugard saw the Fountain’s Los Angeles premiere of The Road to Mecca in 2000, he was so impressed that he offered the company world premiere rights to an as-yet-unwritten new work. In 2004, Stephen Sachs directed the world premiere of Exits and Entrances. The production garnered production and direction awards from both the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and the Ovations, and Sachs went on to direct acclaimed regional productions around the country, including an off-Broadway production at Primary Stages and the UK premiere at the 2007 International Edinburgh Festival. Since then, the Fountain has produced four premieres of Fugard’s plays including the American premiere of Victory (two LADCC awards and four LA Weekly nominations, and named “Best of 2008” by the Los Angeles Times);the West Coast premiere of Coming Home (three LA Weekly awards including “Ensemble” and “Direction,” LADCC award for “Lead Performance”); the U.S. premiere of The Train Driver (three LA Weekly awards); and the U.S. premiere of The Blue Iris (LA Weekly Award nomination for best ensemble).
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek premiered to critical acclaim at the Signature Theatre in New York City earlier this year. The New York Times called it “tender and ruminative” and Newsday wrote, “Fugard stamps indelible human faces on faraway reports of the world’s news.”
Set design for the Fountain Theatre production of The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek is by Jeffrey McLaughlin; lighting design is by Jennifer Edwards; sound design is by Peter Bayne; costume design is by Naila Aladdin Sanders; props are by Dillon Nelson; dialect coach is Nike Doukas; assistant stage manager is Terri Roberts; production stage manager is Rita Cofield; associate producer is James Bennett; and Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor produce for the Fountain Theatre.
Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won over 225 awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include being honored with the 2014 Ovation Award for Best Season and the 2014 BEST Award for overall excellence from the Biller Foundation; the Fountain play Bakersfield Mist in London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid; the sold-out Forever Flamenco gala concert at the 1200-seat John Anson Ford Amphitheatre; and the last six Fountain productions consecutively highlighted as Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times. The Fountain has been honored with six Awards of Excellence from the Los Angeles City Council for “enhancing the cultural life of Los Angeles.”
Gilbert Glenn Brown, Suanne Spoke, Thomas Silcott, Philip Solomon
“Maybe one day you will also walk many roads.” Nukain Mabuza,The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek
Our company of theatre artists began their walk together on the road toward our upcoming west coast premiere of Athol Fugard’s beautiful new play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek . Actors Gilbert Glenn Brown, Thomas Silcott, Philip Solomon, and Suanne Spoke met with the production and design team under the eye of director Simon Levy. This marks Silcott’s second Fugard play at the Fountain, who co-starred in Coming Home in 2009.
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek is the seventh Fugard play produced at the Fountain since 2000. Producer Stephen Sachs spoke about the Fountain’s longtime relationship with Fugard and its fifteen year history of producing his new work. Director Simon Levy shared his thoughts on the play. Also present at the first meeting were associate producer James Bennett, assistant stage manager Terri Roberts, set designer Jeff McLaughlin, costume designer Naila Aladdin-Sanders, props designer Dillon Nelson, dialect coach Nike Doukas, and publicist Lucy Pollak.
This beautifully heartfelt new drama by Athol Fugard is inspired by the life of South African artist Nukain Mabuza. Aging South African farm worker Nukain has spent his life painting the rocks at Revolver Creek into a vibrant garden of flowers, the young orphan boy Bokkie now at his side. But when the landowner’s wife arrives with demands to stop his painting, the deep racial conflict of a country is viscerally exposed, and the seed of the painter’s legacy is planted to blossom in the rise of the next generation.
Athol Fugard outside The Fountain Theatre in 2012.
Anyone who follows the Fountain Theatre knows about our longtime artistic friendship and association with Athol Fugard. The internationally acclaimed South African playwright considers The Fountain Theatre his artistic home in the United States. The Fountain has launched 6 premieres of Athol’s new plays since 2000. Fugard’s newest play, receiving its world premiere later this month at The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, is his his first written entirely in Afrikaans. Fugard’s plays have often been translated into Afrikaans but Die Laaste Karretjiegraf (“The Last Buggy Grave”) is his first play written in the native language of his beloved and beleaguered homeland.
Fugard reveals that he had promised his late mother that he would write at least one Afrikaans play in his lifetime and that he would highlight the plight of the Karretjie people (“buggy people”) of her beloved Karoo.
South Africa’s “buggy people” in The Karoo.
“The Karoo’s buggy people are the gypsies of South Africa” he says. “In this country of ours where both blacks and whites make such harsh demands on the land, one must remember, the car people are the direct descendants of the original landowners, the Khoi and the San.”
Is he nervous about the upcoming opening night? “The premiere of a new piece is always a time for fear and trembling,” he laughs with just a touch of seriousness.
“But this one is perhaps different, because ultimately I make a promise to my mother, Elizabeth Magdalena Potgieter, to write a play in her language.”
Fugard explains how he came to his subject. “A major incentive was the anthropologist Riana Steyn. Her master’s dissertation on the car people inspired me to write the play. “
“Earlier, the buggy people’s lives were hard, but they were free. They could move from place to place. The whole bloody Karoo was theirs. Now they have nothing. “
Fugard’s “The Blue Iris” at the Fountain Theatre (US Premiere, 2012).
In the new play, Koot and Sarah meet after many years on a farm in the Karoo at the grave of Koot’s mother, Mieta Ackerman. During Koot’s years of roaming he was the informal spokesman for a team of Karretjie sheepshearers at the Brug outspan. He has just been released from prison where he served time for murdering his second wife. During his detention in the local prison, Ouma Mieta looked after his children. Sarah is of Afrikaner descent and has in the meantime completed her dissertation in Anthropology on the subject of Karretjie children.
Although Afrikaans is both Sarah and Koot’s mother tongue they are worlds apart; they are, however, connected by shared experiences of pain, guilt, remorse, love and ultimately hope. Die Laaste Karretjiegraf is a story about the Karretjie People and a tribute to the heritage of the direct descendants of South Africa’s first inhabitants. This is a way of life which, for various reasons, has come to an end and has, in more ways than one, been laid to rest with Ouma Mieta in her grave.
Many of Athol’s plays are, in part, autobiographical. Is there a piece of himself in this newest work?
“The last buggy grave in the Karoo. This is me. ” says Fugard.
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 Tierby 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.
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.