- The pair then moved to Johannesburg, where Fugard took a job as a clerk at the Native Commissioner’s Court. The Court dealt with black persons charged with violations of the Pass Laws that restricted their movements in apartheid South Africa, and gave a European judge the option of applying Native or Common law. Fugard was appalled by the injustices he witnessed in the court.
While working as a court clerk in Johannesburg and dealing with the passbook system, you clearly saw the inequities of apartheid, can you give us an example? Is there one case that still stands out? How did that affect your future work?There were many cases that made me realize that by job made me a cog in a vicious and brutal machine. There are two cases I will never forget. The first one was when as part of my job I had to witness the whipping of a young black teenage boy who had infringed in a very small way on the draconian laws of apartheid. The second case involved a very old black woman who had been arrested in Johannesburg for being in the city without the necessary stamp in her passbook. She could not speak English and the only defense she could offer was to hold up a crumpled bus ticket, which made everyone laugh. http://m.timeoutshanghai.com/features/Performing_Arts-Theatre/29854/Interview-Athol-Fugard.html
- While working as a stage manager for South Africa’s National Theatre Organization, Athol Fugard wrote Blood Knot (1961), the play that earned him international recognition. Fugard starred in the play alongside black actor Zakes Mokae, with whom Fugard would collaborate again on “Master Harold”…and the Boys (1982). As a result of the play’s criticism of apartheid, the South African government withdrew Fugard’s passport for four years. When he supported the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s boycott of segregated theatre audiences, the government further restricted his movements and the Secret Police began surveilling his theatre company
- The second theatre company founded by Fugard was the Serpent Players, a group of all-black actors, all of whom held regular jobs in addition to working on stage. Among the troupe’s members was John Kani, who would later receive an Olivier Award nomination for his performance in Fugard’s My Children My Africa! and later wrote his own play dealing with post-Apartheid South Africa, Nothing but the Truth (2002). The Serpent Players moved from venue to venue with minimal set, frequently performing Fugard’s plays in black townships, employing Brechtian theatrical principles of disillusion and social critique. The company’s name refers to their first venue, a former snake pit at a zoo. Fugard continued to write plays critiquing segregation, including The Coat (1966), and co-authored by John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972). .
- Sizwe Banzi is Dead illustrates the struggles of Sizwe Banzi, a man who is unable to work because of an incorrect stamp in his pass-book. When a corpse is discovered, Sizwe must decide whether taking the deceased man’s identity is worth the risk, even though doing so means working and living. This play is a direct reaction to Fugard’s work as a law clerk at the Native Commissioner’s Court in Johannesburg where he saw blacks jailed daily for not having their pass-books in proper order. https://timelinetheatre.wordpress.com/2009/12/18/about-athol-fugard/ Kelli Marino is the dramaturg for TimeLine’s Master Harold’ … and the Boys and staff writer for Fugard Chicago 2010.
Learn to dance like champions instead of always being just a bunch of beginners at it?”
-“Master Harold”…and the Boys (1982
– Written by Kate O’Connor Kate holds a BA in English from Stanford University and a MA in English Literature from University of Oxford
The first Athol Fugard play I saw was “Master Harold”…and the Boys. I was in high school, the same age as Harold, and the play haunted me. What was this world that felt in some ways so familiar – the pressures of school, the complex relationship of a child to his parent – and yet was so far away from my present day life? Later that year, I saw a production of Blood Knot. Though I was in liberal Northern California, I immediately recognized the social injustice and inequality being so eloquently represented onstage. I looked around my community and saw the story of the Blood Knot brothers. In this country, we were lucky to be untouched by apartheid, but we were not free from social inequalities of race, class, gender, and age.
Inspired by Fugard’s writing, I became obsessed with South Africa, wanting to learn as much as I could about this dry and foreign place where in my lifetime, discrimination was written into law. I remembered watching Nelson Mandela receive the Nobel Peace Prize. I rented the Up Series documentaries that followed black, white, Indian, Afrikaner, and colored children throughout their daily lives. The 1990s were an exciting time to be paying attention to South Africa, and I think we were all aware that we were witnessing something big: the end of apartheid was the beginning of freedom for a nation mired in deep sadness, poverty, and imbalance.
Born in 1932 in the Eastern Cape town of Middleburg, South Africa, Fugard started writing in the 1960s. His prolific history (in which he also acted in and directed many of his own works) includes over 30 plays, many film adaptations, and a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Fugard’s writing still energizes me to grapple with issues of social justice: education, socioeconomics, gender, age, race – they’re all in there. But as an adult, it is also Fugard’s tremendous skills as a writer that draws me again and again to these texts. He takes tiny corners of South African life and, by shining light onto them, turns them into prisms that reflect the whole of the surrounding world out to his audience. Fugard’s work does not overtly presenting doctrine and diatribe. Instead it is theater of humanity, of relationships, of the heart. In a country as political as South Africa, Fugard has said, political commitment and comment is an automatic by-product of being a truthful storyteller. His work inspires conversation, deep examination of the questions he asks, and then, real change. He is, without question, one of the greatest writers of our time.
Though rainy Portland is on the opposite side of the earth from the deserts of South Africa, I know you will find, as I have, universal truths revealed in the specificity of Fugard’s words: poetic, blunt, honest, and inspiring.
~Adriana Baer, Artistic Director