Athol Fugard Breaks Fences Around 'The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek' The 82-year-old playwright says he thought he was done writing about South Africa after apartheid ended — but there were more stories in him, like this tale of a farmer who paints his life on rocks.
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Athol Fugard Breaks Fences Around 'The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek'

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Athol Fugard Breaks Fences Around 'The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek'

Athol Fugard Breaks Fences Around 'The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek'

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The iconic South African playwright Athol Fugard is 82 years old, and he's still actively writing and directing new plays. His latest, "The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek," looks at his country during and after the apartheid era. It's opening off-Broadway tonight and Jeff Lunden has more.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: For decades, Athol Fugard worked tirelessly both in South Africa and in exile to illuminate the injustices of apartheid in his plays. And when it finally ended and Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president in 1994, Fugard was convinced his career was over.

ATHOL FUGARD: I sincerely believed that I was going to be South Africa's first literary redundancy. But as it is, South Africa caught me by surprise again and just said, no, you got to keep writing, man - there are still stories to tell. And possibly at this moment in our history, the stories that need telling are more urgent than any other stories that needed telling during the apartheid years.

LUNDEN: Fugard's new play tells a story based in part on a real person - Nukain Mabuza, a farm laborer who was also a self-taught artist. During the apartheid era, he created a kind of garden of painted rocks on a hill, or koppie, in Afrikaans. In the play, he's stuck on the last rock, a huge boulder.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK")

LEON ADDISON BROWN: (As Mabuza) I think the big one here has been watching me all the time, waiting for me.

LUNDEN: Ultimately he decides to paint his life story, as he explains adopted grandson, an apprentice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK")

BROWN: (As Mabuza) I was born on this land. I walk and work on this land. One day I will die on this land. But I've got no home.

LUNDEN: But the wife of the white Afrikaner farmer who owns the property doesn't like this new painting and orders him to redo it. The old man agrees but the child is devastated at his capitulation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You know what it is? His story. It's his life.

LUNDEN: Fast-forward to the second act. It's 2003, nine years after Mandela became president. The child who had been Nukain's apprentice has grown up and returns. Played by Sahr Ngaujah, he sneaks through a hole in the fence his adopted grandfather once mended, intending to restore the painting.

SAHR NGAUJAH: It's a testament, I think, to Athol's brilliance because what we have here is this older generation of South Africans who've been kind of holding this fence together because they had to. And then when they die, we find that fence has a hole in it and the new generation walks right through it onto the land that feels like theirs now.

LUNDEN: Fugard writes about a world that has been turned upside down for everyone. The farmer's wife now feels threatened by the new reality. She carries a gun and confronts the young man.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK")

NGAUJAH: (As Jonathan) Go, shoot. Pull that trigger.

BIANCA AMATO: (As Elmarie) Are you mad?

LUNDEN: It's a situation which comes straight from contemporary headlines, says Bianca Amato, the English South African actress who plays her.

AMATO: There's a real problem with particularly farm murders in South Africa, where innocent older people are being murdered because they're isolated. And there's a very kind of warped situation where the vulnerable and the old are being targeted.

LUNDEN: Eventually, the old white woman and the young black man need to listen to each other, says Athol Fugard. The young man sits down and says...

FUGARD: Come on, let's try again. The farmer's wife asks, try what? And he says, understand each other - because if we can't, our future will be as big amiss as anything in our past.

LUNDEN: The play manages to distill the very real but often unexpressed feelings in present-day South Africa, says Bianca Amato.

AMATO: What amazes me about Fugard is that he still has his thumb on the pulse, for him as an 82-year-old man to still be really hearing and seeing and feeling his country and being able to create something that represents a part of it so beautifully.

LUNDEN: As for the playwright - who has finally moved back to Cape Town after living in the United States for years - will this be the last boulder he paints on his hill?

FUGARD: It's a real issue. When does an artist recognize the end and how do we deal with the end of our creativity? You know, is it a moment of celebration, a moment of fear? I mean, for all I know, writing this play might've been my big rock at the top of my koppie because, you know, I don't know what's going to come out of me after this and this might be the end. But, that fascinated me.

LUNDEN: Whether "The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek," turns out to be Athol Fugard's valedictory effort or not, it is another one of the urgent stories the playwright says he still needs to tell. For NPR News I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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