Fugard's 'Have You Seen Us?': Looking Within Again

Sam Waterston and Liza Colon-Zayas in 'Have You Seen Us?' i i

Out Of Water: Abandoned by his family, adrift in his career, Sam Waterston's Henry Parsons is the latest in a long line of deeply flawed but hugely human characters from playwright Athol Fugard. Charles Erickson/Long Wharf Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Erickson/Long Wharf Theatre
Sam Waterston and Liza Colon-Zayas in 'Have You Seen Us?'

Out Of Water: Abandoned by his family, adrift in his career, Sam Waterston's Henry Parsons is the latest in a long line of deeply flawed but hugely human characters from playwright Athol Fugard.

Charles Erickson/Long Wharf Theatre

He's known for striking, graceful dramas — Blood Knot, Master Harold ... and the Boys — that examine the tragedy of racism and apartheid in his native South Africa. The film Tsotsi, adapted from his novel, won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. And Time Magazine has called Athol Fugard "the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world."

Fugard attributes his passion for playwriting to his fascination with language.

"[It's] not so much language on the page as what happens to language in people's mouths," says Fugard. "How we speak. How we corrupt it. How we use it to hide away secrets. How we use it sometimes to try and tell our biggest secrets."

His obsession with the drama of language came from listening to his mother, a nearly illiterate Afrikaner.

"What she did with the English language in her mouth to this day still delights me," says Fugard. "She couldn't speak it properly, but it somehow flowered in her mouth, if you know what I mean."

Fugard often hears his own language flowering in the mouths of actors; he'll find new insights into his own dialogue when they speak it for the first time.

"It is my own personal experience that sometimes the playwright is the last person to know what his own play is really about," Fugard says wryly.

Discovering A Play On Its Feet

Playwright Athol Fugard and Long Wharf Theatre staff i i

Have You Seen Us?, which premiered at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre on Dec. 2, is Fugard's first play set in the United States, where the South Africa-born playwright now lives. Fugard (center, with Long Wharf Theatre staff) says many of his plays center on his fascination with language and how we use it to convey — or corrupt — meaning. Charles Erickson/Long Wharf Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Erickson/Long Wharf Theatre
Playwright Athol Fugard and Long Wharf Theatre staff

Have You Seen Us?, which premiered at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre on Dec. 2, is Fugard's first play set in the United States, where the South Africa-born playwright now lives. Fugard (center, with Long Wharf Theatre staff) says many of his plays center on his fascination with language and how we use it to convey — or corrupt — meaning.

Charles Erickson/Long Wharf Theatre

Fugard's new play, Have You Seen Us?, is the writer's first drama set in the United States. The world premiere production has just opened at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, with Law and Order's Sam Waterston as Henry Parsons, an alcoholic academic who finds himself stuck in a Southern California sandwich shop on Christmas Eve.

With him are a waitress — "an overweight, uneducated Mexican waitress," as Henry puts it, with whom he's accustomed to playing an "ugly little game ... of trading insults and offensive gibes" — and an old Jewish couple. It's in their company, on that night, that he finally comes to terms with hard truths about himself.

On the eve of his final dress rehearsal, Waterston agrees to talk about bringing the part to life — though somewhat reluctantly.

"What you're doing today is a little bit like interviewing a woman on the table in the delivery room about the nature of childbirth," he jokes. He seems particularly cognizant of what it means to be part of a premiere for a writer who, like Fugard, uncovers new meaning in his work when he sees it performed.

"You don't want to load the event with too much extraneous significance," says Waterston. "But I am aware that at the very least, Athol will look at this and say, 'Hmm, this is more or less what I intended. Or, 'Oh my Lord, I didn't mean that at all.' ... Or something in between."

To A Dark Place, And Past It

Waterston's character — an expat South African, like Fugard, but an embittered one, happy with neither himself nor the world — thinks he's got the upper hand in his relationship with the waitress in that cafe. The waitress knows better.

"She greets Sam Waterston's character by calling him a 'viejo sucio borracho perdido,' which is a lost, dirty old drunk," says Liza Colon-Zayas, who plays Adela.

Colon-Zayas says that she didn't realize how painful the play was at first. In the course of that night, Waterston's character wakes up to his own lifelong racism, and to the fact that Adela — and that old Jewish couple, whose arrival in the shop sparks a visceral reaction in Henry — are just his latest targets. He literally goes on his knees to ask forgiveness.

"It was such a work in progress that I didn't realize what a hard pill it would be to swallow," says Colon-Zayas. "And I think without going that dark, that moment of clarity — that choice to be humble enough to ask for forgiveness — it's not so powerful."

The moment ultimately gains its power, she says, because of Fugard's words. Spoken, living language, after all, is why Athol Fugard says he writes plays.

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