MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work.
Today, we focus on a man known for plays exposing the brutal reality of South African apartheid. He is the playwright, actor and director Athol Fugard. He began working with a multiracial group of actors in the 1950s. He's been writing all this time, through the apartheid period, the dawn of all-race elections and to the South Africa that we know today.
Over the course of his lifetime, his work has been banned in his home country, and he's received many honors, including a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement in the theatre in 2011.
This year, the Signature Theatre in New York is hosting him as its first international residency playwright. The theater is showing three of his plays, each from critical moments in his career and in South Africa's history. And we are pleased to have Athol Fugard join us now.
Welcome, and thank you so much for speaking with us.
ATHOL FUGARD: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: You were in your mid-20s when you started writing, and this year, at least six of your plays are being performed in the U.S. and Britain. I should mention, you're starting rehearsal for one of those plays at Signature, "The Train Driver."
I just wondered if you are surprised to see that there's so much interest in this work at this stage of your life.
FUGARD: Well, yes. It tempts me to believe things that I think are dangerous to believe for a practicing playwright or an author, you know, about your significance to other people. But it's also a wonderful opportunity. What it's given me is a chance to look back over the 50 years that span the writing of the first play I directed at Signature this current season, and the last play I will be directing, which comes up in a few weeks' time.
Those two plays, both of them two-handers - with a black man and a white man in both stories - are the bookends of the arc that essentially defines myself as a playwright and of the 50 years I've been playwriting between those two plays. It doesn't mean I've stopped. I mean - I don't know. That's probably to the annoyance of quite a few critics. I've gone on. I've already written about - I think about four or five new plays since "The Train Driver," and I've got ideas for the future, as well.
MARTIN: Will you permit me to go backward a bit with you and ask - for those who are not aware, you have described yourself as an Afrikaner writing in English. Your mother was Afrikaans. And you found yourself, many times, up against the Afrikaner-led regime during apartheid. How did you come to a place of understanding that apartheid was wrong?
FUGARD: I thank my mother for that. My parents were, on my father's side, English-speaking, and the great gift he gave me, of course, was the English language - which, you know, is just about the biggest thing you can give to any writer. My mother, on her side, a simple Afrikaans woman, almost illiterate, gave me my soul. And, between the two of them, my father was a gentle man and a very beautiful man, also an alcoholic, like myself, for a period of time.
My mother was the breadwinner of the family, and she was endowed with just a natural sense of justice and decency. And she was asking questions about the world in which the two of us found ourselves struggling. You know, she said to me: There must be something wrong with this. And she would talk to me in that vein. And I think that prompted me to start looking at the world in a way trying to break the conditioning that was taking place on school playgrounds, in classrooms, everywhere.
You know, society was trying to make me conform to a set of very rigid, racist ideas. But my mother challenged - was challenging those. And I had great pleasure in saying that, you know, if you look at my plays, you'll see that the strong, the affirmative, the positive voice in any of the plays I've written is that of a woman. My men are - well, not quite worthless, but they're certainly weak. And that reflects the reality that I grew up with and, you know - and what I think has, in a sense, shaped me.
MARTIN: When you started working across color lines in the 1950s, how did you manage it, given that so much of life was regular? The whole intention was to keep the races separate. The culture would be a particularly dangerous place, right? Because that's where you're introducing the ideas.
FUGARD: Yes, absolutely.
MARTIN: So how did you manage it?
FUGARD: Well, it was foolhardy, and we paid prices. But it was a gesture of defiance. I mean, I eventually learned enough about the law to understand that in certain circumstances, I could go on working with my black colleagues, provided the occasions when we invited others were strictly private, and that only people that were members of the group could enter it. There were all sorts of loopholes, Michel, that we explored, but as I say, there were prices. In my case, relatively minor by compare it with what my black friends endured, many of whom, because of the association with me, and it raised a very, very serious issue of conscience, ended up on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.
MARTIN: "Blood Knot" was the play that launched your career here in the U.S. back in 1964, and it is a play about brothers who fall on different sides of the color line. One is black and one seems to be white. As we said, in 1964, at a time when, I mean think any thinking person would know that, you know, race fixing has been going on, has always been going on, certainly going on in the United States and, you know, in South Africa and so forth. But I'm wondering about the difference between how the play was received in 1964 and now that it's been, you know, revived how it has been received now all these years later.
FUGARD: In South Africa at that time, the play shattered one jingoistic belief that the stage belonged to things that looked like English drama or, preferably, English comedy, although there were gestures occasionally to the classics. And the notion that a South African story would be not only possible but would be entertaining and significant amazed South African audiences.
Now, 50 years later, here I am in New York and I opened the Signature season with great apprehension. You know, South Africa itself has traveled along a very strange and crooked road, I must say, to where it is now, and Americans were - had massive problems of their own to deal with. So I sat at the back row of the first preview and the audience trooped in, and I was astonished at the end of the play by the warmth of their reception, which literally had, I think, half the audience standing on their feet and applauding. And that wasn't the first time. With every performance I attended, sometimes it was the entire house that stood up.
MARTIN: And I bet there were some tears, as well. I would think so.
FUGARD: Ah, yes, I'm sure. But...
MARTIN: And why do you think that is?
FUGARD: Well, what amazed was that I realized that they weren't looking at a museum piece, they were looking at something, the story of those two brothers and its racial hatred was pertinent to their own lives at this moment in time, relevant, meaningful. You know, it doesn't take an astute observer from outside looking at the American scene to realize that underlying all of the opposition that President Obama is encountering is actually - I know this is a big reach on my side - but the problem is that there's a black man in the White House.
MARTIN: You think?
FUGARD: Yes. Absolutely.
MARTIN: Why do you think that?
FUGARD: Why do I think that?
FUGARD: Because I think racial prejudice profiling is alive and well and flourishing in spite of the civil rights struggle in America, just as in South Africa. Our attempts to eliminate it by creating equalities in terms of our constitution has not been successful. The very famous - and the intention was magnificent, and I think a lot of good flow out of it - but the real intention of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not achieved.
MARTIN: Why do you say that?
FUGARD: Because you can't legislate into existence an act of forgiveness and a true confession, those are mysteries of the human heart and they occur between one individual and another individual, not a panel of judges sitting, asking questions, trying to test your truth because you've come forward and said I'm going to tell you about all the terrible things I've done.
MARTIN: We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with South African playwright Athol Fugard. His career has spanned five decades. The Signature Theatre in New York has made him its first international resident playwright this year, and the theater is performing a cycle of his plays.
You mentioned earlier that you still have many, many ideas, you said perhaps to the chagrin of people who...
MARTIN: ...of some. But what keeps you going, especially now that you don't have official, you know, apartheid to push against as a specific thing?
FUGARD: Well you know...
MARTIN: What keeps you going?
FUGARD: Well, you know, when Nelson Mandela came out of jail, Michel, it was of course, for me as South African, and for I think the majority of South Africans who had realized we had our backs against the wall and something had to happen, and he was it. And we lived through a period of euphoria that was the most extraordinary experience of my life. And one of the things that came out of it was my firm conviction that I would be South Africa's first literary redundancy.
My life had been defined by the apartheid years. Now we were going into an era of democracy, a fledgling democracy was going to start marching into the future, and I believed that I didn't have really a function as an artist, as a useful artist, in that anymore. But it didn't take me long to realize that as the years passed, during Mandela's first presidency, he was replaced by Thabo Mbeki. And then we saw Thabo Mbeki handed himself over to the most unbelievably stupid ideas about AIDS, about HIV and the efficacy of antiretroviral drugs. That literally - and this is no exaggeration - tens of thousands of South Africans died every week - black, mostly - simply because those antiretroviral weren't available.
Thabo Mbeki was followed by Jacob Zuma, who is now in place in South Africa, and he started off his presidency by getting acquitted on a rape charge. He was also found not guilty on charges of corruption, but that is hardly an auspicious beginning to his term of presidency. And I'm afraid that as the years pass Jacob Zuma is going to turn out to be a disaster, maybe even a bigger disaster than Thabo Mbeki was. Because his party, his Cabinet have drafted a law which would virtually muzzle the press, a piece of legislation that could have come directly out of the apartheid years.
MARTIN: I take it you're disappointed with the current state of things in South Africa.
MARTIN: Yeah, to put it mildly.
FUGARD: But the opposition to it was so profound that little concession was being made, a little concession is being made, another concession is being made, but they don't add up to what should actually be the case. That law should be trashed. It should be thrown away.
MARTIN: Do you fell that what you have to say about the current regime in South Africa will be as welcomed by your worldwide audience as your comments were about apartheid?
FUGARD: I think they're going to possibly feel very sorry to hear me say that, because amongst armchair liberals, the notion that South Africa is now a happy democracy and that Nelson Mandela, you know, did it all, is very current, very widespread.
MARTIN: Is that what's keeping you going, feeling that you need to tell people what's really going on?
FUGARD: The act of witnessing is important to me. Somebody's got to tell the truth, you know what I mean?
MARTIN: I do. Well, before we let you go, we do call this a Wisdom Watch conversation, so we'd like to ask if you have any wisdom to share for whoever you would like to speak with, perhaps young playwrights.
FUGARD: Oh. Oh.
FUGARD: To any 80-year-old gentleman out there...
FUGARD: Male or female, you know, who wants to know because that happens to be my age, and it's supposed to be the age when you stop, but that is such, such nonsense. I'm being honest with you if you're listening to me, any 80-year-old person, that I have a greater sense of adventure at this moment in my life than I ever had in the past. The most probably what, five or six more years left in my case, but I'm going to live them up to the hilt.
MARTIN: The internationally renowned playwright Athol Fugard took a break from rehearsals at the Signature Theatre to join us from our bureau in New York.
Thank you so much for speaking with us. It's truly been an honor.
FUGARD: Thank you, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at TELLMEMORENPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.